Tunisian presidential contender in jail as election nears

The courts have turned down Tunisian media requests to interview him in jail.
Wednesday 11/09/2019
In this file photo taken on October 13, 2011, Nabil Karaoui, founder of Nessma TV, poses in his studio in Tunis. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on October 13, 2011, Nabil Karaoui, founder of Nessma TV, poses in his studio in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Less than a week before Tunisia’s presidential polls, the continued detention of one of the leading candidates continues to represent a legal and political headache for election organisers.

Businessman Nabil Karoui, a leading contender in the September 15 presidential race, was jailed August 23 on charges of tax evasion and money laundering dating back to November 2017.

The media mogul, who has a strong following with Tunisia’s rural and poor populations, remains eligible to run for president. However, concerns are growing that he is at a disadvantage to other candidates who can campaign freely and have appeared in televised debates. The courts have turned down Tunisian media requests to interview him in jail despite support for such requests from HAICA, the country's independent media regulatory body.

On September 10, the European Union’s election observation mission called on Tunisian authorities to “to take the necessary measures to enable all candidates, including Mr Karoui, to campaign in accordance with the principle of equal opportunities.”

The same day, the US NGO The Carter Center issued a statement raising concerns about Karoui’s status. “The detention of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui one week before the start of the campaign based on an investigation that has been ongoing since 2017 has added to the speculation that the electoral process is being influenced by considerations other than strict compliance with the rule of law,” read the Carter Center’s statement. “While Karoui will remain on the ballot, he is at a disadvantage because he is not be able to campaign while in detention.”

In a further setback to his aspirations, the candidate was unable to attend televised debates September 7-9 that featured nearly all other contenders.

"Tonight I am deprived of my constitutional right to express myself in front of the Tunisian people,” wrote Karoui on Twitter before the first round of debates. "They dare to speak of democratic and transparent elections despite the absence of the basic principle of equal opportunities.”

With just a few days to go before the first round of voting, Tunisian media channel elhiwar ettounsi is seeking to interview Karoui from Mournagia prison, some 20km from the capital. But while Tunisia’s election authority approved the interview in order to ensure “equal opportunities between candidates,” a Tunisian appeals court blocked it from going ahead on September 10, citing prison policy. 

For Karoui’s supporters, the move was seen as the latest in a series of efforts to handicap his presidential bid.

“Nabil Karoui is a political prisoner,” Salma Smaoui, Karoui’s wife who is leading his campaign on his behalf, recently told Tunisian media. She said that it was suspicious that, as a presidential candidate, Karoui was “arrested three weeks before elections in connection with a case that dates back to 2016."

Government sources have rejected such charges, insisting the courts independently issued Kraoui's arrest warrant and that the defendant enjoys his full legal rights."

Karoui complained of moves by the government and judiciary targeting him even before his arrest.

In June, Tunisia’s parliament passed an electoral law that would have barred Karoui from entering the presidential race. The law never took effect because then President Beji Caid Essebsi did no sign it before passing away July 25. An appeals court later denied Karoui’s bid to be released pending trial.

Despite his legal troubles, Karoui is thought to have a chance of advancing to a presidential run-off.