Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui released from prison

Release comes days before final round of presidential elections

Nabil Karoui, Tunisian media magnate and presidential candidate is pictured after submitting his candidacy to Tunisia's electoral commission in the capital Tunis in August. AFP
Nabil Karoui, Tunisian media magnate and presidential candidate is pictured after submitting his candidacy to Tunisia's electoral commission in the capital Tunis in August. AFP

Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui received a hero's welcome as he walked free from jail on Wednesday night, days before a runoff vote against another political newcomer.

Throngs of the media mogul's supporters gathered outside Mornaguia prison near Tunis, and waved Tunisia's flag and Karoui campaign banners as they cheered.

An elated Mr Karoui then drove off in a black Mercedes without speaking to the press.

The release, hours before final results from parliamentary polls, is the latest twist in an election dominated by political outsiders.

As legislative election results were announced late Wednesday, three days after the voting, it became clear that Tunisian politics would be put to the test.

Mr Karoui’s secular Qalb Tounes, or Heart of Tunisia party, looked destined to face off in parliament with its political enemy, the conservative Islamist party Ennahda.

The Islamist party finished first in Sunday’s parliamentary elections by winning 52 seats, while Heart of Tunisia took 38 seats, the electoral board announced late on Wednesday.

As the top party, Ennahda gets to nominate the prime minister. But with 217 seats in the Assembly of People’s Representatives, both parties are far from a majority. That puts the nation that kicked off the Arab uprisings in 2011 – and the only country to emerge with a democracy – on a fractious political path.

The jailing and last-minute release of Mr Karoui, 56, underscored Tunisia’s bizarre electoral season, which saw two upstart candidates reach the runoff in the presidential election and more than 200 parties in the legislative election sandwiched between the two rounds of the presidential vote.

The Court of Cassation's decision to release Mr Karoui, who has been held since August over a money-laundering investigation, comes ahead of Sunday's final presidential vote.

Mr Karoui's lawyer, Kamel Ben Messoud, earlier said the court had "annulled the detention order" against his client.

Another of his lawyers, Nazih Souei, said Mr Karoui remained under investigation, "but he is free".

Mr Karoui is running against conservative law professor Kais Saied in the second round of voting.

Mr Saied announced last weekend that he was stopping his campaign so he would not have an unfair advantage over Mr Karoui.

Tunisia's prominent political figures were snubbed by voters in the September 15 presidential first round because of frustration over a stagnant economy, high unemployment, failing public services and rising prices.

While Tunisia has succeeded in curbing terrorist attacks that rocked the key tourism sector in 2015, its economy remains hampered by reforms required by the International Monetary Fund.

With the electorate tired of political manoeuvring and the failure to improve living conditions since the removal of longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Mr Karoui and Mr Saeid have taken the lead.

Earlier requests to release Mr Karoui had been turned down. He has said his arrest was political.

Despite being behind bars, he won 15.6 per cent of votes in the first round.

To date, Mr Karoui had been forced to campaign by proxy, through his wife and the Nessma TV channel he founded.

Updated: October 10, 2019 11:54 AM

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