Tunisian President Kais Saied on Thursday sacked 57 judges accused of corruption and other crimes, after passing a new law strengthening his grip on the judiciary.
Saied, who has steadily extended his powers since he sacked the government and suspended parliament last July, issued a decree late on Wednesday allowing himself to unilaterally sack judges for “actions … that could compromise the judiciary’s reputation, independence or functioning.”
In the early hours of Thursday, the official gazette published a list of judges who had been dismissed, and who may face prosecution.
The gazette did not list the reasons for their sacking.
But Saied had at an earlier cabinet meeting accused unnamed judges of corruption, stalling “terrorism” cases, sexual harassment, collusion with political parties and obstruction of justice.
In February, he already scrapped an independent judicial watchdog and replaced it with a body under his own control, a move critics decried as his latest blow to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Saied had long accused the previous judicial watchdog, whose members were partly elected by parliament, of blocking politically sensitive investigations and being influenced by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.
A former head of the dissolved body is among those who lost their jobs on Thursday, along with a former anti-terror court spokesman and a former customs chief.
Also on the list are judges involved in a long-running inquiry into the 2013 assassinations of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
A Wednesday’s ruling, applicable immediately, goes further than Saied’s February decree, which had given him powers to dismiss “any judge failing to perform his professional duties” and had banned judges from going on strike.
Saied now has powers to sack judges “by decree and without any process”, the International Commission of Jurists’ regional director Said Benarbia warned on Thursday.
He called the move “an affront to the separation of powers and judicial independence”.
“Through it, the collapse of the rule of law & the constitutional order is now complete,” he tweeted.
Saied has insisted he has no intention of interfering with the judiciary, but rights groups have accused him of placing it under the direct control of the executive.
Saied’s power grab on July 25 last year was welcomed by many Tunisians tired of a parliament seen as corrupt and self-serving but political parties and civil society groups have warned that the country is drifting back towards authoritarianism a decade after the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Saied has laid out a roadmap to a referendum next month on a new constitution, which has yet to be published, and elections in December.
Tunisians are meanwhile struggling with high unemployment, inflation and food shortages, aggravated by the war in Ukraine.