Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Candidate's arrest causes a stir in Tunisia's presidential race

TV station owner Nabil Karoui was the front runner in the September 15 election

Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, owner of the private channel Nessma TV, was arrested last Friday. Reuters
Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, owner of the private channel Nessma TV, was arrested last Friday. Reuters

Tunisia’s presidential election has taken a dramatic turn with the arrest of Nessma TV boss Nabil Karoui, a leading candidate, on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

Mr Karoui's party alleged that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who is also running for the presidency, was behind the arrest, while another leading candidate described the development as "dangerous". Mr Chahed, through his party Tahya Tounes, has strenuously denied any involvement in Mr Karoui's arrest.

Mr Karoui was returning to the capital from Beja, about 100 kilometres north of Tunis after opening a party office within the governorate, when he was arrested on Friday afternoon and taken to Mornaguie Prison near Tunis. It remains unclear if he has been allowed visitors or a lawyer to see him.

“The indictment chamber charged in the cases of financial corruption decided today to issue two prison deposit cards against Nabil Karoui and his brother Ghazi Karoui,” Saber Horchani, the spokesman for the appeal court, told state news agency TAP.

Ghazi Karoui is currently reported to have fled to Algeria, though this remains unconfirmed.

A judge ordered the detention of Mr Karoui to face charges of tax evasion and money laundering, Mosaique FM radio reported.

Responding to Mr Karoui's arrest, Iyadh Elloumi, a senior official with his Heart of Tunisia party, told a news conference Saturday."We are making a direct accusation against Youssef Chahed and his gang of having orchestrated this arrest."

Mr Elloumi described the action against Mr Karoui as "degrading and dictatorial practices" which would only serve to give him "free publicity".

Tunisia’s electoral body has said Mr Karoui remains eligible to run in the September 15 election despite his arrest.

The election was brought forward from November after the incumbent, Beji Caid Essebsi, died in July at the age of 92. This is only the second election to take place under Tunisia's 2014 constitution and one that already appears to be rivaling the country's tumultuous recent history in terms of drama. Under the terms of the constitution, as well as acting as a figurehead for the country, the president must approve all bills passed by parliament and retains control over the country's defence and foreign relations.

Mr Karoui’s arrest “shows that the transition is still ongoing”, Tunisian political analyst Youssef Cherif told The National, “that powerful people can go beyond the law and that the independence of the judiciary and the police is relative”.

Even so, progress is being made, he said. “It's not like the elections are being rigged. There are many strong candidates with a cleaner legal dossier competing, and their criticism of Karoui's arrest attests to the level of freedoms in the country.”

Abdelfattah Mourou, presidential candidate of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, said Mr Karoui's arrest marked “very dangerous event”.

There is concern that “the judicial agenda will interfere with the political agenda to create confusion and lead us to the unknown”, Mr Morou told Diwan radio.

Mr Cherif said the case against Mr Karoui, who was close to Caid Essebsi, was not new but authorities may have been slow to act against him because of the influence he enjoyed.

“The case is three years old. It was delayed because he is well-connected, I think. And now it got accelerated, possibly because he's not protected anymore.”

Mr Karoui has been on trial since early July, along with his brother, Ghazi, on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. He has had his assets frozen and been banned from leaving the country. However, until Friday had not been arrested and retained freedom of movement within Tunisia.

The accusations were first raised in a 2016 report by the Tunisian anti-corruption watchdog, IWatch, which laid out the network of companies that the Karouis were allegedly using to take money out of the country illegally and avoid paying tax.

Mr Karoui’s bid for the presidency has been dogged by controversy. In April, police stormed the offices his Nessma television station and shut it down for several days. Prosecutors said the channel had breached broadcasting regulations; Nessma claimed it was an attempt to silence its criticism of Mr Chahed’s government.

On Saturday, under a joint agreement between the broadcasting ombudsman and electoral commission, the Nessma group, along with two other private networks were banned from reporting upon the election during the official campaigning period of September 2 to 13. Zitouna, a network considered to be close to Ennahdha party and Radio Qur’an also had their output restricted.

In July, after polls showed Mr Karoui leading the presidential race, the government fast-tracked amendments to the electoral law that would have barred him and several other unorthodox challengers from running. The bill was passed by parliament but never signed into law by Caid Essebsi, who neither returned it to the house nor expressed reservations about it before his death.

Mr Karoui was one of the founders of the late president’s Nidaa Tounes party in 2012 but distanced himself from it after a rift with the late president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, in 2017. Some degree of rapprochement appears to be under way, with the Mr Caid Essebsi telling Nessma over the weekend that he feared for his life, or that he was destined to join Nabil Karoui in prison, following his temporary detention by customs officers at Tunis Carthage airport on Friday on suspicion of bringing an excess of foreign currency into the country.

Mr Karoui is also regarded by some sections of Tunisia’s political establishment as a disreputable populist. That view is strengthened by his use of Nessma TV to boost his profile ahead of the elections, with extensive airtime devoted to reports of its owner and his charitable foundation, Khalil Tounes, delivering aid to the poor. He was also tainted by an audio recording purportedly of him instructing Nessma journalists to conduct a smear campaign against IWatch’s leadership after its report. He claimed the recording had been doctored.

Updated: August 25, 2019 08:54 PM

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