TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s prime minister vowed on Thursday to push ahead with a war against corruption to restore trust in the state, adding this would exclude no-one whatever their political affiliation.
Youssef Chahed’s speech to lawmakers is part of a campaign that has gained him some plaudits among Tunisians even as he tries to push through unpopular austerity measures.
Corruption was one of main catalysts of the 2011 revolt against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and many Tunisians complain graft is as widespread six years after their North African country emerged into democracy and free elections.
During the two last months, Tunisia’s government has confiscated the property and frozen bank accounts of 15 prominent businessmen arrested on suspicion of corruption.
Soon after, authorities dismissed more than twenty employees in customs and transferred dozens of others for investigation on suspicion of involvement in corruption.
“During our war on corruption, we confiscated about 700 million dinars ($286 million) in foreign currency and about one billion dinars of smuggled goods,” Chahed said in his first speech addressing the graft campaign.
“Our slogan today is no immunity for corruption to anyone, no to hiding behind political cover. Corruption crimes will not pass,” he said.
This was an apparent reference to influential businessman Chafik Jaraya, a media mogul who maintains political contacts in Tunisia and Libya and helped finance Chahed’s own Nidaa Tounes ruling party during the last elections in 2014.
Jaraya was detained in May. His lawyer dismisses charges against him, saying he is victim of a political vendetta.
Some have criticized Chahed’s campaign as nothing more than political showmanship and infighting within Nidaa Tounes.
“Why have you arrested Jaraya now? Jaraya financed your party and its meetings, this is not a war on corruption, but it is just narrow political battles,” opposition party Popular Front lawmaker Ammar Amroussia said after Chahed’s speech.
Chahed rejected the suggestion his campaign was political.
The country’s anti-corruption committee has warned graft is still common and threatens Tunisia with billions of dollars a year in losses. It has said it has presented cases against 50 senior state officials alleged to be involved in corruption.
($1 = 2.4471 Tunisian dinars)
Reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Patrick Markey and Alexander Smith