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Tunisian pundit arrested over TV comments, lawyers say

Tunis, Tunisia — Tunisian security forces stormed the bar association in Tunis and arrested the lawyer and political commentator Sonia Dahmani after she made comments on television about the state of the country, her lawyers said.

The arrest late Saturday was covered live by the France 24 news channel, which said it was forced to cut its broadcast, and that its crew had been assaulted and a cameraman briefly detained.

Dahmani’s attorney Dalila Msaddek in a post on Facebook reported a “police attack against the bar association headquarters” with “lawyers assaulted and the abduction of colleague Sonia Dahmani to an unknown location.”

Islam Hamza, another lawyer in Dahmani’s defense team, confirmed to AFP that Dahmani had been arrested.

Tunisian media reported Dahmani was under investigation under the controversial Decree 54, which outlaws “spreading false news” online or in the media and “incitement to hate speech.”

Journalists and opposition figures argue the law has been used to stifle dissent.

Msaddek said the pundit was summoned to court on Friday to explain her remarks but refused to appear. A court then issued a warrant ordering law enforcement to bring Dahmani before the investigating judge.

Dahmani told journalists before her arrest that she refused to appear “without knowing the reasons for this summons.”

During a show on the Carthage Plus TV channel on Tuesday, she responded to another pundit’s claim that migrants from sub-Saharan African countries were seeking to settle in Tunisia.

“What extraordinary country are we talking about?” she asked sarcastically, triggering angry reactions from some Tunisian social media users.

France 24, whose team had been at the bar association at the time of the arrest to report on an event in support of Dahmani, said in a statement that police officers forced the crew to stop transmitting live footage.

The police “violently” removed the camera from its tripod and detained cameraman Hamdi Tlili, who “was released after about 10 minutes,” said the network.

It condemned what it said was a “brutal intervention by security forces that prevented journalists from practicing their profession as they were covering a lawyers’ protest for justice and in support of freedom of expression.”

Signed by President Kais Saied in September 2022, Decree 54 mandates up to five years in prison for the use of communications networks to “produce, spread [or] disseminate …  false news” or to “slander others, tarnish their reputation, financially or morally harm them.”

Since the decree came into force, more than 60 journalists, lawyers and opposition figures have been prosecuted under it, according to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists.

The North African country is a key departure point for thousands of migrants who risk perilous Mediterranean Sea crossings each year hoping for a better life in Europe.

But the situation of sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia has worsened, particularly after a speech by Saied last year in which he painted “hordes of illegal migrants” as a demographic threat. 

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