Tunisian presidential candidate to be freed from jail days before run-off vote

A Tunisian appeals court Wednesday ordered the release of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui days before Sunday’s second-round run-off election, his lawyer told Reuters.

Media mogul Karoui was detained in August before the first round of the election and has spent the entire campaign period in prison pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion, which he denies.

“The appeals court has decided to immediately free Nabil Karoui,” lawyer Kamal Ben Massoud said without elaborating.

“His release saved our transition and the situation at the last moment.… We were in a very difficult moment in Tunisia, which really threatened Tunisian democracy,” Karoui’s spokesperson Hatem Mliki said.

Last week, interim President Mohamed Ennaceur said Karoui’s detention and inability to campaign had damaged the credibility of the election. Election watchdogs had also called for his release, saying there could be no fair vote if he was detained.

Tunisia’s electoral commission has itself warned that Karoui could appeal against the result if he loses as he has been denied equal opportunity to communicate with voters, and that the result could be annulled.

Karoui took 15.6 per cent of the vote in the first round of the election three weeks ago, and on Sunday he will face Kais Saied, a retired law professor who came first with 18.4 per cent.

The case against Karoui was brought three years ago by I Watch, the local chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog. It is not clear when a final verdict will be made in the case.

Critics regard Karoui as a corrupt populist wrongfully manipulating his television station and a charity he runs for personal political gain, but his supporters see him as a champion of Tunisia’s poor.

The election has resulted after the July death at age 92 of president Beji Caid Essebsi.

Saied has his own critics. The firebrand conservative wants to bring back the death penalty for the first time in nearly three decades, considers homosexuality a serious crime and has rejected a bill introduced by Essebsi’s government that mandated equal inheritance for women.

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