Tunisia’s President Kais Saied inaugurated a “temporary” council of judges on Monday, which replaces an independent watchdog that he abolished weeks ago as he seized sweeping powers over the judiciary.
Saied had last month scrapped the High Judicial Council (CSM), gave himself powers to sack judges and banned them from going on strike, moves critics say threatened democracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
On Monday, members of the new “Temporary Supreme Judicial Council”, appointed by Saied, were sworn in at the presidential palace in Tunis in what the president called a “historic moment”.
“This marks the true independence of the judiciary,” he said, vowing to “wage a relentless war against the corrupt and those who wanted to infiltrate the courts”.
Saied had on July 25 last year sacked the government and suspended parliament.
His moves pleased some Tunisians fed up with a political class seen as bickering and self-serving.
But he has been sharply criticised by rights groups and world powers who say he has threatened the country’s fragile democratic gains.
Saied has long accused judges on the CSM of corruption and of blocking inquiries into the 2013 killings of left-wing activists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
He says the body had been infiltrated by Ennahdha, the Islamist-inspired party that has dominated Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolt that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
On February 13 he issued a decree establishing the new, temporary council of 21 members, who must swear “by God Almighty to preserve the independence of the judiciary”.
Nine are directly appointed by the president, while the others serve by virtue of their existing positions — from which the president now has the power to sack them.
The decree also forbids “judges of all ranks to go on strike or hold any organised collective action that could disturb or delay the normal working of the courts”.
The ruling provoked thousands-strong protests in the capital Tunis and stinging criticism from international rights groups.
“Since last July, President Saied has dismantled almost all institutional checks on his power,” said Amnesty International’s regional director Heba Morayef in February.
The CSM had “stood as Tunisia’s last bastion of judicial impartiality”, she added.
The CSM had been made up of 45 judges, of which parliament elected two thirds who in turn elected the remainder.