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Tunisia: State of Emergency Declared

(July 8, 2015) On July 4, 2015, following the June 26 terrorist attack in Tunisia’s beach resort city of Sousse, in which 38 tourists were killed, the country’s President Beji Caid Essebsi announced a 30-day state of emergency. Under such a situation, security forces have more powers and the right of assembly is limited. Furthermore, the government plans to shut down 80 mosques considered to be outside of government control and to be spreading terrorism. The emergency state can be renewed at the end of the 30 days. (Tunisia Beach Attack: State of Emergency Declared, BBC NEWS (July 4, 2015).)

According to Essebsi, “exceptional measures” and foreign assistance are necessary to fight terrorism. “In order to face up to this scourge we need to be prepared. We need to have enough troops, proper training and material means – we are in desperate need of material means.” (Id.) He had argued in March, after an attack on a museum that caused the deaths of 22 people, that “[w]e’re against a police state … . But I say that liberties cease when abuses begin, and we are the victims of abuses from fanatics.” (Ahmed Feteha, Tunisia to Issue Terrorism Law Soon, President Essebsi Says, BLOOMBERG BUSINESS (Mar. 22, 2015).)

Tunisian authorities have in part blamed the extent of the losses at Sousse on the slow response of local security forces on the day of the attack. The President noted that the lack of a “culture of terrorism” in the country may have contributed to that slow response. He also referred to the general threat posed by the proximity of Libya, as well as the problems of poverty and high unemployment rates in parts of Tunisia. (Tunisia Beach Attack: State of Emergency Declared, supra; Tunisia Holds Eight over Sousse Attack on Tourists, BBC NEWS (July 2, 2015).)

The government has identified Seifeddine Rezgui as the gunman in the recent incident and also arrested eight suspected collaborators. Rezgui is said to have been trained by a terrorist group across the border in Libya. Four other individuals were previously arrested as possible co-conspirators and then released. (Id.)

An earlier state of emergency had been declared in Tunisia in January 2011, in response to the uprising that overthrew then-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. (Angela Tchou, Can’t We All Just Calm Down?, SLATE (Feb. 10, 2011).) That state was not lifted until March 2014. (Tunisia Beach Attack: State of Emergency Declared, supra.)

Constitutional Provisions on State of Emergency

Under Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014, the President is authorized to take any measures required by a state of emergency. (Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia (unofficial translation, as submitted to the National Constituent Assembly on Jan. 26, 2014), art. 77, CONSTITUTION FINDER.) The Constitution also specifies that “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions of the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state” and after consulting with the Head of Government and the President of the Assembly of Representatives of the People (the legislature), the President may take “any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.” (Id. art. 80.) The President must also inform the President of the Constitutional Court of his actions. (Id.)

The legislature is a 217-member unicameral body, called in Arabic the Majlis Nawwab ash-Sha’ab (Assembly of Representatives of the People). (Tunisia, INTER-PARLIAMENTARY UNION (last visited July 6, 2015).) It is presumed to be in continual session during a state of emergency and cannot be dissolved during the period. Furthermore, a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented in the legislature during the emergency. (Constitution, art. 80.) The Constitution also requires that a return to normalcy be achieved as soon as possible. At the end of the 30-day term of the emergency, the President of the Assembly of Representatives or any group of 30 members of that body may apply to the Constitutional Court to determine whether or not the exceptional circumstances that made the state of emergency necessary are still in place. The Court then has up to 15 days to make a decision. (Id.)

Future Plan

The legislature has been considering a draft new counter-terrorism law since early 2014; it is expected to pass in the next few weeks. (Tunisia Beach Attack: State of Emergency Declared, supra.) Supporters of the proposed law view it as a way for the state’s authority to be reinforced and hope that the law will reduce the number of citizens tied to extremist groups. (Anouar Jamaoui, The Dangers of Tunisia’s Anti-Terrorism Law, FAIR OBSERVER (June 6, 2015).) The draft states in Chapter 11 that intentionally disrupting “in any manner whatsoever” the operation of military institutions and establishments will be subject to imprisonment for three years and a fine of TND15,000 (about US$7,640). It also establishes in Chapter 14 that participation ” … in any attack on the institutions and establishments of the armed forces” is subject to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of TND50,000. When the accused carries a weapon, whether hidden or visible, the penalties are doubled. The law also would provide some benefits to victims of terrorism, such as access to free health care. (Id.)

Critics of the draft law argue that it will allow the government to repress public and personal freedoms, such as freedom of belief and expression, by censoring social media, and that fair trial requirements for individuals suspected of crimes will be disregarded. The legislation, they argue, gives priority to security over personal liberty and will give government more control over personal information, through wire-tapping, surveillance of electronic correspondence, and other measures. Furthermore, commentators note that the draft gives judges very broad powers over how trials are conducted, including the ability to restrict the role of lawyers and to ban media members and human rights organizations from attending. (Id.)