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Letter to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
28 December 2000

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
President de la Republique
Palais Presidentiel

Your Excellency,

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.

Dr. Marzouki faces trial on December 30 on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, the internationally respected CNLT, under article 30 of Penal Law no. 154, and disseminating false information with the intent of disturbing public order, under article 49 of the Press Law. If convicted, he could serve up to eight years in prison. The government's use of these laws to punish Dr. Marzouki for his advocacy of democratic reforms is inconsistent with its obligations under international human rights treaties to which it is a party, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression singled out article 49 of the Press Law as violating article 19 of the ICCPR, regarding freedom of expression. Your Excellency stated earlier this month that you would seek to reform the Tunisian legal system, specifically by changing the press laws so as to prevent their use to justify censorship. We hope that you will use the occasion of Dr. Marzouki's trial to demonstrate your commitment to the defense of free expression and academic freedom in Tunisia.

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.

Tunisia has nominated itself as a host for the U.N. World Information Society Summit in 2003. This event aims to gather leading figures in government and civil society to foster the global development of the Internet and other new means of disseminating information. We fully support any effort to decrease the gap between developed and less-developed nations in this important area, and we would be pleased to see this summit take place in a developing country whose government was committed to protecting the right of academics to gather and share their knowledge. We hope that your urgent attention to decreasing the pressure on academics will show Tunisia to be such a country.

We look forward to your positive response on this important matter.

Saman Zia-Zarifi
Academic Freedom Program
Human Rights Watch

cc: HE Hatem Atallah, Ambassador of Tunisia to the United States