June 25, 2005
His Excellency Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
c/o Tunisian Embassy
Haakon VIIs gt. 5 B
0161 Oslo, Norway
We are writing to you to express our deep concern at the upsurge in attacks on freedom of expression in Tunisia since our first fact-finding mission in January and to urge you to act to end these attacks, which in the minds of many call into question Tunisia’s suitability to host the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November.
As members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), established in 2004 under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to evaluate the conditions for participation in the WSIS, we met with Tunisians of different political and intellectual persuasions, including government officials, and witnessed and documented attacks on freedom of expression and association and movement in January and May.
Following months of research and monitoring of attacks on freedom of expression and harassment of journalists in Tunisia, we concluded that the credibility of the WSIS would be seriously compromised and the Tunisian authorities would assume a huge responsibility in the eyes of the international community for this, if effective measures were not taken immediately to:
1- Release from prison human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou and Hamadi Jebali, editor of the banned weekly Al-Fajr, who are imprisoned like hundreds of other Tunisians on charges related to the peaceful exercise of their basic right to freedom of expression and association.
Local, regional and international rights groups and Western governments on friendly terms with your government, including the US administration, maintain that these prisoners, known worldwide as political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, have neither used nor advocated the use of violence and have been denied the right to a fair trial.
Abbou was kidnapped by the police in the streets of Tunis on March 1, 2005, less than 24 hours after posting a piece on the Internet criticizing the government’s decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the WSIS. Paradoxically, he was sentenced by a criminal court in Tunis, following an unfair trial on April 28, to three and a half years of imprisonment for publishing statements last year “likely to disturb public order” and for “defaming the judicial process” and also for “violence”, nearly three years ago, against a female lawyer close to the government. A Tunisian appeals court on June 10 confirmed his prison sentence following a hearing that fell short of international standards for a fair trial, according to human rights defenders and diplomats.
The opinion piece used to indict Abbou was not the one he posted on the Internet on the eve of his abduction by the police, but another posted in August 2004 in which he compared the inhumane conditions in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to those prevailing in Tunisian prisons.
Arrested in 1991 following the publication in Al Fajr of an opinion piece by human rights lawyer Mohamed Nouri on the unconstitutionality of military courts, Jebali is currently serving a 16-year sentence for allegedly belonging to an “illegal association” and attempting “to change the nature of the state”.
2- End arbitrary administrative sanctions and unrelenting police harassment compelling journalist Abdallah Zouari to live nearly 500 km from his wife and children and preventing him from earning a living or even from using public Internet cafes.
3- Release all banned books and publications, including those written by prominent democracy advocates like Mohamed Talbi and Moncef Marzouki, and edited by institutions committed to human rights education like the Arab Institute for Human Rights, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and the Temimi Foundation.
The IFEX TMG welcomed your announcement on May 27 to abolish the legal submission procedure applicable to the press, but made clear at the same time to the Tunisian authorities that the release of all blocked books and publications in Tunisia would be interpreted as “a step in the right direction.”
4- Recognise the inalienable right of civil society groups to operate freely and without any form of harassment of their leading figures and members. The recognition of and respect for the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the League for Free Writers, Raid-Attac Tunisia and many others would bring Tunisia into conformity with international human rights standards and enhance its image worldwide.
5- End harassment of independent journalists and leading figures of the Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate, whose establishment in May 2004 was in conformity with the Tunisian Labor Code.
6- End the abusive use of the Law on Terrorism ironically promulgated on December 10, 2003 and which unfortunately turned out, according to local and international human rights groups, to be a tool to silence and punish critics of the government. One of the latest victims of this law is the Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR). The assets in Tunisian banks of this regional institution, aimed, since its establishment in Tunis in 1989, at raising human rights awareness in the Arab world, have been frozen for political reasons.
7- Make sure that the right to establish media outlets is not solely reserved for individuals or groups close to the government or implemented in the absence of basic rules of fairness and transparency and that the right to access Internet cafes and to freely surf the Web is not restricted.
Thank you for your attention to this letter. We look forward to your early reply.
Members of the IFEX-TMG:
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR)
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK