Tunisian court orders release of Nabil Karoui
TUNIS - A Tunisian appeals court on Wednesday freed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui days before Sunday's second-round runoff election, his lawyers announced Wednesday afternoon.
Media magnate Karoui was detained August 23 before the first round of the election and has spent the entire campaigns for presidential and legislative elections in prison pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion, which he denies.
The first round of presidential election was held September 15. Karoui took 15.6% of the vote against conservative jurist Kais Saied who received 18.4% of the ballots.
"The appeals court has decided to immediately free Nabil Karoui," lawyer Kamal Ben Massoud said without elaborating.
"His release saved our transition and the situation at the last moment ... We were in a very difficult moment in Tunisia which really threatened Tunisian democracy," Karoui's spokesman Hatem Mliki said.
Last week, interim president Mohamed Ennaceur said Karoui's detention and inability to campaign had damaged the credibility of the election. Election watchdogs had also called for his release saying there could be no fair vote if he was detained.
Tunisia's electoral commission has itself warned that Karoui could appeal against the result if he loses as he has been denied equal opportunity to communicate with voters, and that the result could be annulled.
The case against Karoui was brought three years ago by I Watch, the local chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog. It is not clear when a final verdict will be made in the case.
Karoui, criticised for using his television channel, Nessma TV where he is a shareholder, to promote his image as champion of the poor, has gained his popularity by reaching out directly to inhabitants of disadvantaged regions and handing out food.
He faces an uphill catching up to his rival, seen as leading the race. Saied has however refrained from campaigning during the last few days to avoid any impression of unfair advantage over his detained rival.
(With news agencies)