Tunisia's president has rebuked the prime minister for allowing a close associate of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to be extradited to Libya, prompting fears Tuesday of a split in the ruling coalition.
Government ministers allied with the premier have defended him, saying the extradition was within the prime minister's powers.
The case exposes the tenuous nature of the power-sharing agreement in Tunisia's ruling coalition, which consists of a moderate Islamist party that won the most seats in parliament and two secular parties.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali is from the Islamist Ennahda party, while President Moncef Marzouki is from the liberal Congress for the Republic.
Marzouki said the prime minister overstepped his authority when he ordered the extradition of Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, Gadhafi's last prime minister, to Libya where he is wanted for alleged crimes.
Marzouki, a former human rights campaigner, had opposed the extradition on grounds that Al-Mahmoudi might not get a fair trial in Libya, and his life could be in danger.
"Extradition has more to do with Tunisia's foreign policy than the judiciary, and foreign policy is the prerogative of the president of the republic," he said in a statement conveyed by his spokesman, Adnan Mancer, late Monday. "It was an illegitimate decision taken unilaterally."
The statement added that the president was ready to bring the matter to the constitutional assembly, Tunisia's first elected body.
In a press conference, Minister for Human Rights Samir Dilou and Justice Minister Nourreddine Bhiri supported the prime minister's move.
"It was purely technical and administrative operation following the judicial, legal and constitutional procedures," said Dilou, who is also the government spokesman.
Bhiri added that the presidency "did not have the right to accept or refuse extraditions" — a power he said belonged to the cabinet.
The two ministers are both from Jebali's Ennahda party.
Al-Mahmoudi, 67, was arrested in September for illegally crossing into Tunisia as he tried to flee to Algeria, where Gadhafi's family members had sought refuge. Since then, Libya has clamored for the repatriation of Al-Mahmoudi to answer for crimes it says he committed during Gadhafi's reign. Tunisian courts had approved the extradition.
But officials from Libya's former regime have not fared well in the hands of Libya's new leaders, who overthrew them. Gadhafi and one of his sons were executed upon capture last year.
In January, 15 Tunisian and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed a statement opposing Al-Mahmoudi's extradition, saying he risked death or torture if he was returned to Libya.
Marzouki said the three parties in the government had agreed to wait until after Libya's elections, set for July 7, as well as a report from a Tunisian fact-finding commission that went to Libya in May to determine if a fair trial was possible. The commission report has not yet been issued.
Ennahda is by far the most powerful member of the coalition, with some 89 seats in the 217-seat assembly compared to a total of 49 for its two coalition partners.