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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Tunisian officials demand answers on Ennahda's alleged intelligence service 

The covert group is believed to be behind the assassination of two left-wing secular opposition leaders

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends with new ministers a session of the House of People's Representatives (HPR) dedicated to the vote of confidence on the new government members, in Tunis. EPA
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends with new ministers a session of the House of People's Representatives (HPR) dedicated to the vote of confidence on the new government members, in Tunis. EPA

Tunisian officials are pressuring the ministries of justice and interior to disclose proof that the Islamist Ennahda party was operating a secret security service believed to have assassinated two prominent left-wing secular opposition leaders in 2013.

Their comments on Monday came as parliament met to discuss reports accusing the Islamist party of commanding a covert organization that ran parallel to party structures.

The accusations, brought forward by an independent body linked to the secular left-wing Popular Front coalition, have deepened mistrust of Ennahda ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.

The charges also reignited interest in Ennahda’s responsibility with regards to political assassinations that sparked wide-spread protests against the Islamist movement nearly six years ago.

Mohammed Brahmi, a PF parliamentarian and a vocal critic of Ennahda party, which came to power in elections after the overthrow of the country's autocratic leader Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, was assassinated in 2013, allegedly by radical Islamists.

The murder came six months after Chokri Belaïd, a left-wing lawyer and PF member, was assassinated by hardliners.

The interior ministry, controlled by Ennahda at the time, identified a number of Salafists as potential suspects behind both murders. It linked them to the Ansar Al Sharia group - the most radical Islamist organisation to emerge in Tunisia since Ben Ali was toppled in 2011.

But in a press conference last month, an independent investigative commission comprised of lawyers with links to the Popular Front said they had evidence linking Ennahda to a sprawling “secret organisation” that the commission believes is behind the murders.

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Ridha Raddaoui, a spokesman for the so-called Belaïd and Brahmi Defence Commission said on October 2 that his team had drafted a 200-page report, linking Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, and Noureddine Bhiri, the head of the Islamist group’s parliamentary bloc, to the covert organisation that they say aimed to cement Ennahda’s control over the country.

The report, the commission says, is compiled mostly from official case documents that were buried in a room at the interior ministry, they describe as the "black room."

The documents, which they say include evidence of the operations of the secret organization, do not implicate Ennahda.

However, the spokesman said that he had evidence that the two senior Ennahda figures had direct and regular contact with Mustapha Khedher, who, they believe is the head of the parallel security service that spied on the military, state officials, foreign diplomats and embassies.

Mr Khedher, who was a personal aide to the interior minister in 2013, is a former soldier involved in a 1991 coup against Ben Ali. In 2015, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for fabricating and stealing official documents and records.

According to the commission’s spokesman, a trove of documents concerning the murders of Belaïd and Brahmi were among those Khedher had buried, following orders from Ennahda’s top leadership.

Those same documents ended up in the interior ministry, without being submitted to judicial bodies investigating the murders, the commission claims.

The commission said it believes Khedher, who allegedly employed a roster of 400 intelligence agents, was behind the assassinations, explaining that the man had direct links to suspects in the murder of Belaïd and Brahmi.

Ennahda released a statement categorically rejecting all accusations.

During Monday's parliamentary session, the newly-appointed interior minister refuted claims that the documents were kept from the judiciary and said that his ministry had never denied being in possession of the documents.

He avoided commenting on the contents of the documents. Instead, he took issue with the use of the term “black room," to described the section of the archives department where they were stored, because the term suggested that they were hidden.

Ahmed Sadiq, the leader of the PF's parliamentary bloc accused the interior minister of distracting the public from the topic at hand by taking issue with term "black room," rather than address the accusations themselves.

Meanwhile, Fatima Al Masdi, a parliamentarian representing the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, called on the interior minister to disclose the contents of the court documents.

She said parliament should freeze the Ennahda party if concrete evidence was presented incriminating the group in the formation of the secret intelligence group.

On the sidelines of Monday's session, Mr Raddaoui of the independent commission threatened to release the documents if the justice and interior ministries failed to disclose their contents to the public.

"The justice ministry will have to reveal all the details of the case and the contents of the documents or else the Tunisian public will be given ownership of the documents," he was quoted as saying by local press.