The controversy over Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem’s hotel stays, known as “Sheraton Gate,” may soon turn into a legal battle. Lawyer Charfeddine Kellil announced yesterday on Tunisian radio Mosaique FM that a “group of 25 lawyers,” including himself, is to file a lawsuit against the minister for the misuse of public funds.
“Sheraton Gate” first arose when blogger Olfa Riahi released a series of receipts from the Sheraton hotel in Tunis, implicating the minister in a potential embezzlement and adultery scandal.
The “group of 25 lawyers” intends to indict Abdessalem according to Article 96 of the Penal Code. The Article in question states that any individual, who obtains for themselves or a third party an unfair advantage using state funds or privilege, is subject to ten years of prison as well as a fine equal to the benefit received or damage suffered. Ultimately, it will be the judge that decides whether Abdessalem is to be tried on the basis of Article 96 or not.
State news agency TAP reported today that the attorney general is opening an investigation into the credibility of the billing information, posted on Riahi’s blog. According to the same source, the investigation will be compliant with Code 31 of Criminal Procedures, which applies to cases in which the allegations have not been substantiated, and will not target Abdessalem until the validity of the information is established.
Fathi Laayouni, a lawyer charged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring suit against Riahi, claimed that the blogger has distorted the reality of Abdessalem’s stays at the Sheraton by selectively publishing information. In addition, he also stated in an interview featured on Hannibal TV last night that “the minister paid cash, and from his own money, without using any discounts for his cousin’s hotel room.”
Riahi, interviewed on Hannibal TV last night, responded to Laayouni’s allegations by inviting him to prove his words in court. She added that he “deserves 80 floggings,” mocking the punishment that Ennahdha party leader Rachid Ghannouchi had spelled out for her.
She also expressed her disillusionment that the public’s focus was on the “other woman” (Abdessalem’s cousin) whose initials were included in the billing information she released rather than the potential abuse of public money by the minister.
While criticizing the media’s focus on the potential extramarital affair, Riahi explained that her intention was to shed light on the misappropriation of state funds. The minister’s cousin, married and a mother of two, was unfairly caught in the midst of public outrage, she said.
“I want to exonerate the woman and her husband from all accusations and defamation they have experienced. I apologize to them even though I am not responsible for the defamations,” Riahi said.
The blogger stated that she could relate with the minister’s cousin, who did not reveal her name, as a survivor of the emotional trauma caused by the “Sheraton Gate” controversy. She addressed her in particular: “Walk out and be proud.”
Secretary General of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) party Mohammed Abbou has expressed his support for the blogger in public statements. While he denied accusations that his party leaked information to Riahi, Abbou indicated to Mosaique FM today that Abdessalem’s name was among the list of ministers that the CPR suggested for replacement two months ago.