Tunisia judge orders opposition top official’s imprisonment

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — An anti-terrorism judge in Tunisia has ordered the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, vice-president of the popular Islamist opposition party Ennahdha, days after the country held a legislative election marked by a very low turnout.

The judge’s decision, announced on Monday, is linked to a case in which other Ennahdha officials are suspected of involving Tunisians who went to fight alongside extremists in Syria, according to Ines Harrath, a lawyer who has worked with a group of attorneys defending Larayedh.

Ennahdha, which had the largest number of lawmakers in the previous parliament, denounced the move as a political attack and called for Larayedh to be freed.

The party said its vice-president was “deliberately targeted” in a “vain and flagrant attempt” by authorities and President Kais Saied to cover the “failure” of Saturday’s vote, which was the election’s first round of balloting.

Only 11.22% of Tunisian voters cast ballots, according to Farouk Bouaskar, president of Tunisia’s Election Authority. That is about 1 million voters out of over 9 million registered.

Bouaskar said 21 candidates were elected in the first round, while 133 candidates are qualified for the second round of voting scheduled for Jan. 19. Definitive results will be announced on March 3, he said.

Opposition parties, including the Salvation Front coalition that Ennahdha belongs to, boycotted the election, saying it was part of Saied’s efforts to consolidate power. The decision not to participate in the vote likely will lead to a new legislature that is subservient to the president, whom critics accuse of authoritarian drift.

In his first public comments on the election, Saied rejected criticism over the low turnout and accused opponents of trying to cast doubts on whether the new parliament would be representative of voters’ views.

He said the turnout “is not measured through the first round, but through both rounds” of voting, according to a statement Monday from the presidency.

Parliament last met in July 2021. Since then, Saied, who was elected in 2019 and still enjoys the backing of more than half of the electorate, has curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament’s powers.

In a July referendum, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, changing the electoral law to diminish the role of political parties.

Critics say the electoral law reforms have hit women particularly hard. Only 127 women were among the 1,055 candidates running in Saturday’s election.

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