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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Jailed Tunisian presidential candidate Karoui freed ahead of poll

Tunisian presidential candidate and media mogul Nabil Karoui left a prison Wednesday where he has been jailed since August, welcomed by a crowd of joyous supporters just four days before the presidential runoff election.

Karoui, under investigation for money laundering and tax fraud, had been pressing along with his party to be set free so he can campaign on an equal footing with his rival. He says the allegations amount to a politically motivated smear campaign.

Karoui, owner of the private Nessma TV station, is facing independent law professor Kais Saied in Tunisia’s presidential runoff election on Sunday. Saied had said he wouldn’t campaign as long as his rival was in jail.

Karoui’s release came as Tunisia’s electoral body was to announce official results of weekend legislative elections in which exit polls showed his recently founded Heart of Tunisia party just behind the conservative Islamist party Ennahda, neither with a majority.

Supporters greeted Karoui as he left the prison outside Tunis, honking horns, shrieking with joy and lighting smoke bombs to celebrate. He said little but was expected to give a news conference later.

Karoui was arrested on Aug. 23 in a case that dates to 2016.

The Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, overruled a lower court earlier Wednesday and ordered Karoui freed immediately, a judicial official said. The information was confirmed by officials of Karoui’s party.

This North African nation kicked off the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 but was the only country affected to emerge with a democracy. Still, the country’s next leader will face significant challenges, including high unemployment, a struggling economy dependent on tourism and the threat of extremist attacks.

The presidential election is being held early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi. The two candidates for the runoff, Karoui and Saied, are political novices but beat out a crowded field of contenders in the first round of voting.

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