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A Tunisian court extends the prison term for a one-time presidential candidate

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A Tunisian corruption court that has targeted many government critics tripled the prison term facing a businessman who challenged President Kais Saied in the 2019 presidential election.

Nabil Karoui — a populist media mogul who has been plagued by charges since being imprisoned in the lead-up to that election — was sentenced on Friday to three years behind bars. The court's spokesperson said he was charged with unlawfully receiving more than $1 million in foreign funds to bankroll his campaign.

Karoui is among the many prominent figures from business and politics who have been targeted in investigations of corruption, foreign funding and undermining state security amid concerns about Tunisia’s authoritarian drift.

Facing a raft of charges, he crossed from Tunisia to Algeria in 2021, where he was arrested and later fled. His whereabouts are unknown.

Karoui was originally sentenced to one year in prison but the term was tripled after Tunisia’s public prosecutor filed an appeal. Karoui will also be ineligible to run for office for five years.

Karoui founded Tunisian television channel Nessma TV and headed what was once one of the North African country's largest political parties. He was arrested and imprisoned in the middle of his 2019 campaign season on suspicion of money laundering but released before election day.

His extended sentence intensifies questions about the judiciary's independence from President Saied.

It comes a day after a corruption court sentenced Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's largest opposition party, to three years in a similar foreign funding case. Abir Moussi, another Saied critic facing prosecution, was hit with a new arrest warrant by Tunisia’s election authority, which claims she disseminated false information.

Moussi, the leader of Tunisia’s Free Destourian Party, had announced plans to run against Saied in this year's presidential race but will not be able to contest the election while she remains behind bars on a 14-month sentence for allegedly plotting against state security.

Lawyers for Karoui, Ghannouchi and Moussi have all described the charges as unfounded and politically motivated.