Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, facing an election run-off this month, remains in detention on suspicion of financial crimes he denies, a court ruled.
The television mogul was arrested in August on three-year-old charges of tax evasion and money laundering after coming second in the first round of the presidential election last month.
It raises difficult questions for Tunisia’s democracy, with supporters saying he is the victim of political chicanery and critics saying his campaign illicitly uses his media channel.
Tunisia has been a democracy since 2011, when its people rose up in a revolution ousting veteran autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and inspiring the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
The electoral commission said Karoui can compete in the October 13 run-off against retired law professor Kais Said unless convicted there seems little chance of an imminent verdict.
Said and Karoui’s success in beating established political leaders including the prime minister, two former premiers and a former president, is a sharp rebuke to Tunisia’s ruling elite after years of economic discontent.
The electoral commission warned Karoui’s detention may violate his right to a fair hearing with voters, putting it at odds with Tunisia’s judiciary, which repeatedly ruled he must stay behind bars.
If he wins, it is unclear if he could be sworn into office in prison instead of the parliament chamber, or if the immunity the constitution gives presidents would apply to crimes not yet tried.
A constitutional court mandated by the 2014 constitution which would normally adjudicate complex political questions has not been formed. The last parliament was unable to agree on its judges.
Tunisia’s president has direct control over foreign and defence policy and can obstruct legislation passed by the government and parliament.
A parliamentary election, in which Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia party is running, will take place on Sunday. The biggest party in parliament can shape the choice of prime minister and the formation of government.