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Jailed Tunisian presidential candidate starts hunger strike for right to vote

Nabil Karoui's supporters rally in front of the tribunal in the Tunisian capital Tunis [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 12 September, 2019

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Controversial media mogul Nabil Karoui began a hunger strike in prison, demanding his right to vote in the upcoming presidential election in which he is a front-runner.

Nabil Karoui, a front-runner in Tunisia's presidential election, has started a hunger strike in prison, his lawyer said Thursday.

Despite his arrest, Karoui remains a candidate in the polls called after the July death of Beji Caid Essebsi and is now protesting for his right to vote.

"Karoui started an open-ended hunger strike since Wednesday to demand his right to vote on Sunday," his lawyer Ridha Belhadj told Reuters.

A court of appeal will hear his request on Friday to be released, Reuters reported. Last week, Tunisia's judiciary rejected such an appeal.

Arrested just weeks before Tunisia's 15 September presidential polls, candidate Karoui has hit the campaign trail by proxy, deploying his wife and party activists to shake the hands he cannot.

"He's not with us today, but he's in all our hearts," his wife Salwa Smaoui told a packed house at a rally, the media mogul's first since he was detained on 23 August on money laundering charges.  

Smaoui does not hold an official position in Karoui's Heart of Tunisia party, founded just months ago, but she received a thunderous welcome from the crowd in her hometown of Gafsa, a central mining area.

"We're going to celebrate, but there's a little sadness because Nabil should be here, not me," she said.

In-depth: Tunisia's next president - Who are the candidates?

Karoui is behind bars at Mornaguia prison, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the capital Tunis, but his campaign team is free to travel the country and fire out social media blasts on his behalf. 

In front of the 2,000-strong crowd in Gafsa, a party official read out a letter Karoui wrote from prison, calling on voters to "make a ballot box revolution" and to "return Tunisia to the people". 

Heart of Tunisia leaders laid out the party's programme at a recent Tunis press conference, placing "the battles against poverty and unemployment" at the top of its agenda. 

'Political prisoner'

Karoui's lawyers claim that preventing him from campaigning like the other hopefuls is unfair, with one calling his client a "political prisoner". 

There was an empty space for Karoui at televised debates between the candidates which began on Saturday, a rare event in the Arab world.

"Tonight I am deprived of my constitutional right to express myself in front of the Tunisian people," Karoui wrote on Twitter.

Karoui and his brother Ghazi have been under investigation since 2017 after anti-corruption watchdog I-Watch submitted a dossier accusing him of tax fraud.

He was indicted in early July and later arrested by plain-clothes police officers just weeks before the first round of the presidential poll. 

The arrest sparked anger among his supporters, who accuse Karoui's rival Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of orchestrating his jailing.

Chahed denies the charge.

Popularity boost

Karoui's popularity has largely been built on the back of charity projects broadcast daily on his Nessma TV channel, which authorities have banned from covering the presidential campaigns.

He was nearly removed from the race in June when parliament passed an amended electoral code that would bar any candidate who handed out "favours in cash or in kind" in the lead-up to the vote.

But Essebsi never enacted the bill, leaving the door open for Karoui to run.

Tunisia's election commission has since confirmed Karoui remains a candidate, even from behind bars.

In-depth: Women set to play a decisive role in Tunisia's elections after Essebsi's death

And while the body has banned the publication of polls, studies say the media mogul's arrest has boosted his popularity.

But it is unclear whether that surge of sympathy will translate into ballot box support.

Observers say that if Karoui makes it to the second round of voting, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial. 

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