Tunisian activists and influential businessman arrested: lawyers

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Tunisian police on Saturday arrested powerful businessman Kamel Eltaief, a former confidant of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as well as two key political activists, lawyers said.

Eltaief, 68, was arrested at his home in the capital Tunis, lawyer Nizar Ayed said without providing further details.

Police also arrested Abdelhamid Jelassi, a former senior leader of the Islamist-inspired movement Ennahdha — fierce rivals of President Kais Saied — as well as the political activist Khayam Turki.

Tunisia has seen a spike in the arrest and prosecution of politicians, journalists and others since Saied seized wide-ranging powers in a dramatic move against parliament in July 2021.

Since then, Saied’s opponents have accused him of authoritarianism in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

For many Tunisians — especially supporters of Ennahdha — Eltaief was seen as a symbol of past corruption in the North African nation.

The influential power-broker was involved in the 1987 coup that forced former president Habib Bourguiba from power on medical grounds, and was long considered a crony of Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali.

Eltaief later fell out of grace with Ben Ali in 1992 in a feud with the former dictator’s wife Leila Trabelsi.

After the fall of Ben Ali in 2011, the businessman moved closer to the opposition.

In 2012 he was investigated for “conspiracy against state security”, but no charges were brought against him and the case was closed in 2014. 

In the case of former Ennahdha movement leader Abdelhamid Jelassi, seven police officers on Saturday evening searched his home and confiscated his mobile phone before arresting him, the party said without providing further details.

According to Tunisian media, Jelassi was arrested on “suspicion of a plot against state security”.

Political activist Turki, 58, had once been considered as a potential candidate to head the government after the resignation of premier Elyes Fakhfakh in 2020, and belongs to the social democratic Ettakatol party.

Turki’s lawyer Abdelaziz Essid, who said his client was not known to be wanted by the authorities, said he was arrested in an early morning police raid.

“He was taken to an unknown destination,” said Essid, adding Turki had not been “facing any legal proceedings” to justify his arrest. No further details were immediately available.

Ettakatol was allied with the Ennahdha party within the government between 2011 and 2014, before the latter became part of the opposition.

Ennahdha condemned Turki’s arrest and called for his “immediate” release, calls echoed by the opposition National Salvation Front (FSN), which condemned a “repressive policy”.

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