Tunisian presidential candidate and media mogul Nabil Karoui left prison on Wednesday ahead of Sunday’s election run-off after weeks of waiting for a verdict in his corruption trial.
Karoui was runner up in the first round of the presidential election last month despite being in pre-trial detention. He will now face Kais Saied, an independent, in the second round of voting.
Supporters outside the prison cheered as Karoui departed, a Reuters journalist said, hours after an appeals court ruled he be released.
Karoui still faces charges of money laundering and tax fraud, which he denies, but no date has been set to hand down a verdict. He remains subject to a travel ban and asset freeze.
The release means a televised debate can now take place between Saied and Karoui, who missed Tunisia’s first ever such event between 26 candidates in the initial round of the election.
His release could make it easier for his party, Heart of Tunisia, to negotiate with moderate Islamist Ennahda party to form a coalition government, though both publicly resisted working together.
Exit polls project Ennahda taking first place and Heart of Tunisia second in last Sunday’s separate parliamentary election, for which official results are still to be announced.
“His release saved our transition and the situation at the last moment. We were in a difficult moment which threatened Tunisian democracy,” Karoui’ spokesman Hatem Mliki said.
Last week, interim president Mohamed Ennaceur said Karoui’s detention and inability to campaign damaged credibility of the election. Election watchdogs called for his release saying there could be no fair vote while he was detained.
Tunisia’s electoral commission warned Karoui could appeal the result if he loses as he has been denied equal opportunity to communicate with voters and the result could be annulled.
Karoui took 15.6% of the vote in the first round three weeks ago with retired law professor Saied first with 18.4%.
The case against Karoui was brought three years ago by I Watch, the local chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog.
Critics regard Karoui as a corrupt populist manipulating his television station and a charity he runs for personal political gain, but supporters see him as a champion of Tunisia’s poor.