"Conspiracy Against State Security": Empty Files to Eliminate Opposition

The individuals under investigation in the so-called case of conspiracy against State security are facing serious charges under the 2015 counter-terrorism law and the Criminal Code, which could potentially lead to the death penalty. Inkyfada has delved into the investigation, uncovering the details of the case and the evidence that the investigating judges brought against the defendants.
Written by | 24 March 2023 | reading-duration 15 minutes

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On February 11, a series of arrests took place, starting with the detainment of political activist Mohamed Khayam Turki, controversial businessman Kamel Letaief, former leader of the Ennahda movement Abdelhamid Jelassi, as well as five additional defendants from different walks of life. On the evening of February 13, journalist and CEO of Radio Mosaïque, Noureddine Boutar, was also taken into custody.

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Leaders of the "Citizens Against the Coup" initiative, including Issam Chebbi, Chaima Issa, and Jawhar Ben Mbarek, were detained on February 22 and 23 with authorization from the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole. Additionally, a former Tunisian diplomat, who had previously met with Khayam Turki, was also apprehended.

The case file indicates that the investigation has been opened against "17 individuals and anyone else who may be revealed in the course of the inquiry." Furthermore, the "Committee for the defense of political leaders detained in the conspiracy case" confirmed that an independent investigation has been launched against lawyer Mohamed Lazhar Akremi, who had been assigned to the Investigating Judge (office 12) of the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole. Following his interrogation and arrest, Akremi's case was transferred to the Investigating Judge (office 36) tasked with the original case.

Source: preliminary interrogation records, the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole

From day one, official authorities refrained from making any statements to the media about the charges and the reasons for the arrests. The accused's lawyers have also been denied access to their clients under the counter-terrorism law, which allows the authorities to interrogate them for the first 48 hours without a lawyer present. It was therefore not immediately clear why the case was brought up and processed under the counter-terrorism law.

XXX's testimonies are post-arrests and without evidence

By processing the case as a terrorism-related one and continuing the investigation using the specialized unit, authorities were able to further obscure it and reject attempts to identify the details of the charges and the evidence on which they were based.

Inkyfada was able to acquire a copy of the interrogation record at the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole, which contains three testimonies from unidentified individuals who were heard on February 16, 18 and 21, 2023, respectively. The first person, referred to as XX, was heard as a witness and spoke about Kamel Letaief's association with political, military, and economic officials in Tunisia in recent years, including current decision-makers.The witness also stated that Letaief had connections and established communication with two of the current political detainees.

On February 18, 2023, another informant referred to as XXX was heard. His testimony was based on receiving a call from a friend informing him of "repeated reports from the Tunisian community in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, about a plan to overthrow the government in Tunisia and remove President Kais Saied."

The informant stated in his testimony that "the plan for a coup against the Tunisian government has been spreading in the European sphere for a while, as most of the meetings and circles organized in this context have taken place abroad". XXX mentioned several names of former and current political leaders, security officials, and businessmen, whom he said are in close contact with Kamel Letaief, who is planning to overthrow the President Kais Saied and may resort to violence in collaboration with one of the leaders of Ennahda movement, Nourredine Bhiri, "who is leading a group of sleeper cells with the help of municipal presidents affiliated to his party," according to his testimony.

Records containing the testimony of informant XXX

The informant's testimony, as stated in the report, appears to be lacking in evidence, and raises questions about the effectiveness of Tunisian security agencies in detecting this plot without relying on the informant's "voluntary" testimony. The latter also claimed that "the meetings to plan the coup against the regime were held in the Tunisian Embassy in Belgium without the Ambassador's knowledge". This same person had mentioned that one of the non-political detainees was connected to a woman who knew a Tunisian businessman residing in the United States, who allegedly had contact with Kamel Letaief. In his story, Letaief had coordinated the coup operation during his meeting with a foreigner named Bernard Henri Lévy in Luxembourg in 2022, although Letaief denied ever being in Luxembourg during his interrogation.

The informant concludes his statement by saying: “I can assure you that the evidence from the beginning points to Kamel Letaief as the mastermind behind the coup to overthrow the regime, and this has been affirmed by the daily conversations among the Tunisian community abroad.” This raises the question of how the entire Tunisian community abroad was aware of such a dangerous plot, which was widely circulated, while the Tunisian state remained unaware and waited for the testimony of the informant XXX. If these statements were made after the arrests, how was the case initially brought to attention?

Interrogations related to political meetings and July 25

Most of the political detainees initially refused to answer the initiating investigator's questions because they were being interrogated under the counter-terrorism law, which prevented them from contacting a lawyer during the first 48 hours.

According to investigation records obtained by Inkyfada, the interrogations centered around the detainees' relationships with each other, the content and purpose of their meetings, and their communication with foreign diplomats in Tunisia. The authorities accessed WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal conversations to gather information on these interactions. Khayam Turki, Issam Chebbi, and Chaima Issa were among those questioned about their meetings and communication with foreign diplomats.

Records containing WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal conversations between some of the detainees and foreign diplomats in Tunisia.

The detainees were not presented with any concrete evidence of any illegal activities but were instead interrogated based on anonymous testimonies alleging their involvement in planning a coup and meeting with suspicious individuals seeking to overthrow the regime and undermine national security. However, these "external parties" turned out to be accredited diplomats in Tunisia, including ambassadors from countries like Italy, Britain, and France.

Samir Dilou, a member of the Committee for the defense of political leaders detained in the conspiracy against State security case, said in an interview with inkyfada: "The current circumstances of the case do not allow for a proper defense, especially since the outcome of the trial is already known and arrest warrants have been issued against the defendants.” He added: "The list of charges is extensive and falls under the counter-terrorism law and the Criminal Code, with sentences ranging from the death penalty to 72 years in prison.”

Dilou affirmed that the content of the case is political and feeds into the concept of "conspiracy against the opposition". He also stated that there is a disregard for laws and the judiciary, as the conspiracy is built on conditions and requirements that can be summed up in the use of violent means, arming oneself, planning a criminal plan, opposing democracy and peaceful civil means, and believing in imposing one's opinion by force. According to him, these conditions are absent in the current case, considering that the opponents of this system are seeking peaceful means of change such as promoting a national dialogue and seeking collaborative visions.

Still according to Dilou, the crime alleged in this case is an impossibility, and the law is controlled by those with the most power, who can imprison the accused not because they deserve it, but simply because they can. He cited what he sees as a "siege on the judiciary by the President and a war against elected bodies," which has made it easier to target opponents and has forced the investigating judge to issue arrest warrants under duress. Dilou believes that the judicial system has become corrupted and lost all credibility.

Notably, the group of 17 detainees is made up of individuals from various backgrounds including business, politics, and even the CEO of a prominent radio station known for its opposition to the President. Among them is Chaima Issa, the sole female detainee, who is a representative of the "Citizens Against the Coup" movement. Initially, the interrogations primarily centered around the detainees' connections with Khayam Turki and the veracity of their alleged attempts to work with foreign diplomats accredited to Tunisia to oppose and overthrow the July 25 coup.

The following infographics present 5 of the defendants, the facts, and the evidence used to charge them with conspiracy against State security. [Click on the arrow at the bottom right or left to move from one profile to another].

As for including Bernard Henry Lévy's name in the list of suspects, Dilou stressed that accusing a person requires a minimum of evidence, and naming a public figure like Bernard Henry Lévy is meant to stir up public opinion. According to him and based on the investigation files, his name appeared in a single sentence said by a secret informant who claimed that Kamel Letaief had met Lévy in Luxembourg. The accused has maintained, however, that he never went to Luxembourg and that he would never meet him, especially since he is a controversial figure.

Other names mentioned in the investigation include Najla Letaief and her relationship with Kamel Letaief who denied knowing her or being her uncle. Samir Dilou stated that Kamal Letaief got implicated in the case while he had no direct connection with the accused, Khayam Turki.

Extract from the interrogation of Kamel Letaief.

According to a document obtained by inkyfada, the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole has created a network of relationships using information gathered from confiscated phones and conversations on messaging apps such as WhatsApp. While there are explanations for all the individuals mentioned in the document, the absence of Bernard Henry Lévy, who's implication is allegedly confirmed based on Kamel Letaief's phone, remains unexplained. In his place, Pierre Besnainou, the President of the European Jewish Congress, appears in the document despite never being mentioned in the investigations.

How did the case begin?

According to the detainees' lawyers, the case was initiated when the Anti-Terrorism and Organized Crime National Unit sent a letter to the Minister of Justice, Leila Jaffel, on February 10, 2023, stating that certain individuals were conspiring against the security of the state. The letter contained only one sentence, as confirmed to Inkyfada by the lawyers.

On the same day, the letter was also sent to the Public Prosecutor at the Court of First Instance of Tunis, instructing them to "undertake and authorize the necessary investigations." As a result, the Public Prosecutor entrusted the security unit to carry out the investigations.

During an interview with inkyfada, lawyer Dalila Msaddek Ben Mbarek expressed her confusion: "How did the security unit address a ‘personal’ letter to the Minister of Justice in the absence of any employment relationship between them, since she is neither their boss nor their subordinate?"

She also wondered why the security unit did not directly inform the Public Prosecutor, as is required by law and as is customary in other cases under Article 12 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, instead of sending a letter to the Minister of Justice who has no legal authority over the Public Prosecutor.

The defense committee stated that there were written instructions from the Minister of Justice to the Public Prosecutor, giving authorization to conduct investigations at the Court of First Instance of Tunis. However, in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure and the principle of independence of the judiciary from the executive branch, the Minister of Justice is not the head of the Public Prosecutor's Office and its members are not under its authority.

The infographic below takes us through the timeline of the case:

What is the President's role in this case?

On Friday, February 10, 2022, before the prosecutions began, President Kais Saied received the Minister of Justice Leila Jaffel. On the same day, the Minister asked the Public Prosecutor's Office to initiate public proceedings in this case.

Strikingly, the President said, according to the statement issued by the Presidency of the Republic, "it is unacceptable for someone to continue to enjoy such impunity, with cases screaming for their conviction before the courts' verdict." This statement was made in the context of a discussion on the judicial system and the cases of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi.

Three days after the start of the arrests, Kais Saied went to the Ministry of the Interior. His visit reiterated the idea that the ministry is the main platform for his speeches on major issues and the starting point of his "battles" against "traitors and conspirators," in his own words.

During this visit, as he walked through the Ministry's gate, he addressed the security officials who were there to greet him, saying, "Those who were arrested are terrorists", referring to the detainees. During the same visit, the President asked the security officials, "Is there any country in the world or in history where anyone would call for the assassination of the President while he's under the protection of the security services?"

This statement implies the detainees' involvement in a plot to assassinate the President. However, the interrogation records obtained by inkyfada did not mention any such plot, and the investigators did not ask the accused any questions about it. Instead, most of the questions focused on the organization of meetings between political figures and employees of foreign embassies in Tunisia to discuss the opposition to July 25.

The Committee for the defense of the detained politicians in the case, in an analytical document obtained by inkyfada, expressed criticism of the President's comments during the same meeting, particularly his remark that "history proved that they are criminals before the courts did." The Committee questioned the necessity of a guilty verdict from the courts if the President had already reached a conclusion. This statement, according to the Committee, demonstrates the pressure exerted by political authorities on the judicial system and their interference in order to impose their "convictions".

As a matter of fact, the President didn't hide his involvement in the case. "I have personally followed the proceedings yesterday until around one a.m.", said Kais Saied during the same visit. He seized the opportunity to express his dissatisfaction with the Public Prosecutor's Office's handling of the situation.

"The prosecution waits until the next morning to bring in a suspect, who's plotting against the State and planning an assassination. I don't think this has ever happened in any other country. This is a case of in flagrante delicto, which means that law enforcement must intervene and then inform the Prosecution instead of waiting all weekend until the Prosecutor resumes work on Monday."

Things eventually went as the President wished, and Khayam Turki and Kamel Letaief were arrested on the evening of Saturday, February 11, 2023.

The President didn't merely raise the issue, but he also took steps to follow up and influence it, as evidenced by his words translating into actions. He directly addressed the judges and urged them to "assume their historical responsibilities." The Ministry of Justice subsequently suspended the investigating judge in office 23 at the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole, who was working in the office next door to the judge overseeing this case, for releasing one of the defendants without issuing an arrest warrant.

The President's condemnation of the detainees in the case and his emphasis on the justice system's responsibility to deliver just and satisfactory judgments go beyond mere insinuations. In fact, they take a more forceful form. During a presidential event on February 22, 2023, Saied made a statement that "whoever acquits them is their accomplice." The defense team representing the accused considered this statement as a direct threat to the judges handling the case, suggesting that the President was ready to use it against them as "partners in crime."

On March 1st, the President met with the Minister of Justice once again, and stressed "the major role that judges must play in this situation". He said that "those who have conspired against the internal and external security of the State and those who keep trying to abuse it in all areas cannot play the victim", according to the presidential statement issued on that day.

Two days after receiving the Minister, Saied met with the acting President of the Supreme Judicial Council on March 3rd, and almost repeated what he had told the Minister, namely that "those who have conspired against the internal and external security of the State claim to be nationalists, when in fact they have taken refuge abroad and have tried and are still trying to victimize the people."

Is meeting with foreign diplomats prohibited by Tunisian and international law?

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations between States governs and establishes diplomats' rights, obligations, privileges, and immunities. It states that the functions of a diplomatic mission include representing the sending State in the receiving State and "protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, both individuals and bodies corporate, within the limits permitted by international law". They may also work toward “furthering the development of relations between the sending State and the receiving State”, and “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State”. Diplomatic missions may also report on these matters to the government of the sending State in order to promote friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State.

Meanwhile, the defense committee believes that the case was built on meetings between the detainees and foreign civilian diplomats accredited to Tunisia, belonging to Embassies of countries such as the United States, Italy, Spain, and France, which is not prohibited by Tunisian law. Based on the interrogation records that were examined by inkyfada, the investigator based his questions on these facts and used them to draw up the list of charges against the accused.

For example, Khayam Turki was confronted with one of his conversations with the chief of the political section at the US embassy. The conversation was about setting a date for a meeting with two embassy officials. The English word "officers"* was mistranslated in the investigation report suggesting a different meaning than “employees”. This put the defendant in a difficult position, suggesting that he had met with foreign military officials rather than foreign diplomats, according to lawyer Dalila Msaddek.

Records containing translations of the conversations between Khayem Turki and Heather Kalmbach

The Defense Committee argues that the allegations against the detained politicians, which are based on suspicions about their meetings with diplomats, imply that these foreign diplomats are also involved in the alleged crimes. Therefore, according to the Committee, it would be necessary to charge or at least request a hearing with them, or to make a diplomatic protest and declare them as "personae non grata". The defense emphasizes that the failure to take these steps would confirm the use of legitimate meetings to undermine the opposition and prevent them from exercising their freedom of expression or assembly.

At the heart of this case is the arrest of opposition figures in Tunisia accused of meeting with foreign diplomats, including three of Tunisia's main international partners: France, Italy, and the United States. President Kais Saied leveraged these contacts to label his opponents as traitors and conspirators against the state, even though these diplomats are still accredited in Tunisia. They continue to hold meetings and consultations with representatives of the Tunisian government, including supporters of the July 25 movement such as the Italian ambassador.