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Letter to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
28 December 2000
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
We write this open letter on behalf of the Academic Freedom Committee of Human Rights Watch to express our alarm at attacks on academic freedom in Tunisia. We are particularly concerned about the ongoing persecution of Dr. Moncef Marzouki, a professor of community medicine at the University of Sousse and the spokesperson for the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), an independent human rights group.
This upcoming trial is the latest incident in a pattern of systematic harassment of Dr. Marzouki. Dr. Marzouki already served a prison sentence in 1994 for his political views. Furthermore, the government's efforts to silence Dr. Marzouki have deprived him of his ability to earn a livelihood and support his family. In 1994 he was prevented from continuing his internationally recognized practice and research in public health, which focused on handicapped children. For most of the period since then he was also stripped of his passport, preventing him from pursuing his academic activity outside Tunisia. On July 29, 2000, Dr. Marzouki was fired from his teaching position (his only source of income) by the Ministry of Public Health following highly questionable and arbitrary procedures. We respectfully ask you to encourage the proper authorities to reinstate Dr. Marzouki to his teaching position and allow him to travel abroad for professional purposes and to visit his family.
The campaign against Dr. Marzouki highlights a general crackdown on academics and civil society in Tunisia over the past few months. Most recently, Professor Mohamed Bechri, a member of the Faculty of Law and Economics at the University of Sousse, was attacked and beaten by plainclothes police officers on December 15 as he was attempting to present to the Ministry of Public Health a petition bearing over five hundred signatures protesting Dr. Marzouki's dismissal. Professor Bechri told Human Rights Watch that he was forcibly prevented from approaching the Ministry and was attacked in his car as he was trying to leave. Professor Bechri's companions, journalist Sihem Bensedrine and Omar Mestiri, secretary general of the CNLT, were also beaten. Mestiri was abducted and abandoned outside the village of Mejaz el Bab, some fifty kilometers from Tunis.
In light of recent comments Your Excellency has made regarding the need for greater respect for human rights in Tunisia, we urge you to instruct the authorities to take all necessary steps to identify and prosecute those responsible for the attacks on Mohamed Bechri, Sihem Bensedrine, and Omer Mestiri. Furthermore, we respectfully urge you to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights by bringing to a halt the use of unwarranted criminal and administrative charges to punish scholars and academics who express critical views, and to allow them to pursue their research and teaching freely.
We look forward to your positive response on this important matter.
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