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Tunisia’s Cybercrime Decree Employed to Target Critics

Tunisian authorities have sentenced two political opposition activists to prison terms for criticizing the government under a 2022 cybercrime decree, Human Rights Watch said today. Instead of using the decree to address cybercrime, the authorities have used it to detain, charge, or place under investigation at least 20 journalists, lawyers, students, and other critics for their public statements online or in the media.

Chaima Issa, a prominent figure of the opposition coalition National Salvation Front (NSF), and Sofiane Zneidi, a member of Tunisia’s largest opposition party, Ennahda, were sentenced on December 11 and 13, respectively, apparently the first two people sentenced under the decree. President Kais Saied issued Decree-Law no. 2022-54 on Combating Crimes Related to Information and Communication Systems on September 13, 2022, as part of the consolidation of his autocratic rule since he took office in July 2021. The authorities should repeal this repressive decree, release those held under it, and drop all prosecutions for peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said.

“In the year since the president issued his cybercrime law, the Tunisian authorities have used it to stifle and intimidate a wide range of critics, while using other laws to detain some of Saied’s most serious political adversaries on dubious conspiracy charges,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisia should immediately release anyone detained for their peaceful expression, drop all charges, and repeal Decree-Law 54.”

Decree-Law 54, which aims officially at “preventing and prosecuting offenses relating to information and communication systems” and setting forth provisions for authorities to “collect electronic evidence,” introduces harsh sentences for broadly and vaguely defined speech offenses, such as “spreading false information.” Since February, authorities have intensified their crackdown on critics across the political spectrum. More than 40 people have been arbitrarily detained for their peaceful activism or expression, mostly on “conspiracy” or dubious terrorism-related charges. Almost all of them have been held for months, some over a year, in pretrial detention.

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