Twenty members of the US Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken denouncing what they saw as the consolidation of authoritarian rule and repression of political dissent and freedoms in Tunisia, and called on President Joe Biden's administration to link aid to the country to the restoration of democracy.

The signatories, including House Foreign Affairs Committee member Gregory W. Meeks, expressed deep concern about what they described as an increasing crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, seeing it as a blatant acceleration in the consolidation of authoritarian rule in the country.

They noted that since February 11, President Kais Saied has overseen a wave of arrests targeting members of parliament, former ministers, prominent leaders of political parties, judges, activists, businessmen and media professionals simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

They also referred to what they described as credible reports of accusations brought by the Tunisian authorities against some of those detained under the anti-terrorism law, including conspiring against state security with the aim of overthrowing the government, because they met with US diplomats.

The signatories of the letter considered that the arrests were carried out in violation of procedures, and spoke of depriving detainees of contact with their families for 48 hours, and the use of excessive force during arrests, causing at least one detainee to be seriously injured, and noted that the authorities continue to arrest more dissidents or summon them for interrogation.

The U.S. lawmakers said what they called troubling developments in Tunisia and the continued consolidation of authoritarian rule not only jeopardize the country's stability in the current economic crisis, but also raise deep concerns about the future of U.S.-Tunisia relations, which since 2011 have been based on a shared commitment to democratic principles, principles that led the United States to designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO U.S. partner.

Detainees and Aid

The members of Congress called on the Biden administration to continue to highlight what they described as the great democratic decline in Tunisia, and stressed the need for the immediate and unconditional release of all those arbitrarily detained.

They also called on the Biden administration to ensure that any U.S. assistance to Tunisia must support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, or directly support Tunisians in desperate need to cope with economic burdens, and not strengthen the grip of those responsible for growing repression and authoritarianism under Saied, including the internal security services.

The signatories also urged their government to make clear that what they described as the Tunisian president's repression undermines trust in the rule of law that is central to a thriving U.S.-Tunisian relationship and to international financial support that would benefit the Tunisian people and alleviate economic hardship.

Members of Congress spoke of what they called President Kais Saied's racist rhetoric toward sub-Saharan African migrants, and said that President Joe Biden's administration should make it clear that this rhetoric is unacceptable and work with regional organizations such as the African Union to express strong support for democratic institutions and the right to freedom of expression in Tunisia.

U.S. lawmakers noted that because of that speech, many sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia were subjected to racially motivated attacks.