TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A Tunisian court on Tuesday refused to free jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui from prison so that he can campaign for the Sept. 15 election, a television station he co-owns and his spokesman said.
Karoui, a leading candidate among 26 people in the race, was jailed Aug. 23 during an investigation into money laundering and tax evasion charges against him.
The decision was announced by Nessma TV, which Karoui co-owns. A spokesman for Karoui, Abdelaziz Belkhoja, said the court declared itself “incompetent” to rule in the case. He denounced the situation as a “masquerade.”
In a telephone interview, he said the situation was “an eminently political affair aimed at sidelining a candidate at the top of the polls.”
Dozens of Karoui’s supporters had rallied outside the Tunis courthouse where judges were meeting, chanting “Liberate him!” They claimed the charges are politically driven since his arrest ahead of the elections.
The media magnate is considered a top candidate in the first-round presidential vote. Tunisia’s electoral commission says he can remain a candidate as long as he hasn’t been convicted.
Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, died in office last month. That triggered an early election.
Karoui’s arrest shook up the race. Tunisia’s democracy, born of a 2011 uprising that led to revolts across the Arab world, remains fragile, and its post-revolution leaders have struggled against unemployment, corruption and Islamist extremism.
Among other leading candidates are Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the defense minister who stepped down from his post to run, Abdelkrim Zbidi. The moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, with the most parliamentary seats, is making its first try for the presidency with candidate Abdelafattah Mourou. Two women are among the 26 candidates, hoping to become the first female president in a country long known for greater women’s rights than most Arab countries.