November 26, 2003
President Jacques Chirac
Palais de l'Elysée
Dear Mr. President,
Human Rights Watch is writing to ask that during your visit next week to Tunisia you raise the case of Mr. Lotfi Farhat, a legal resident of France who has been unjustly imprisoned since a visit to Tunisia in 2000. Mr. Farhat's wife and two young children are French citizens.
Mr. Farhat, a civilian, was arbitrarily arrested, ill-treated, and convicted by a military court in a trial that violated international norms for a fair trial. Among the most flagrant violations, we note:
" Authorities arrested him without a warrant as he arrived on Tunisian soil on August 2, 2000, in the company of his wife and infant daughter. He was then held in incommunicado detention at the ministry of interior until August 15, well beyond the six-day legal limit for garde à vue detention. Authorities then covered up this fact by falsifying the records to show a later arrest date.
" Farhat told his lawyers that during his interrogation, police suspended him by his feet and plunged his head into a bucket of dirty water, beat him, and confined him in contorted positions. He had no access to a lawyer during this period. Under these conditions Farhat signed a "confession" admitting to membership in a foreign group linked to Tunisia's Nahdha organization and to receiving military training in Afghanistan. He was then charged with "terrorist activities" under article 52 of the penal code and membership in a terrorist organization operating outside of Tunisian territory, under article 123 of the code of military justice.
- During pretrial detention, authorities prevented Farhat's lawyers from consulting him for extended periods, and then failed to make the case files available to them until the last moment.
- In a one-day trial at the Military Court of Tunis on January 31, 2001, Farhat repudiated his confession in its entirety, saying it had been extracted under torture. His lawyers contested the procedural irregularities, including the alleged torture, the illegally long garde à vue detention, and the falsification of the recorded arrest date. They also argued that Farhat should be tried in a civilian court. The judge dismissed all of these arguments and, despite the absence of any material inculpatory evidence other than Farhat's "confession," convicted him on the basis of article 123. The court sentenced Farhat to seven years in prison and five years of administrative control.
- Farhat has no right to appeal his conviction, since decisions by Tunisia's military courts are not subject to appeal.
Farhat is today serving his sentence in Gabès prison. According to his wife Souad, who resides in Asnières, near Paris, Farhat has been prevented from receiving any mail she has sent him for many months, including photos of their young children, one of whom was born after he was imprisoned. She has informed us that Farhat, who is diabetic, began a hunger strike on November 18 to demand his rights as a prisoner.
We urge that you intervene in this case, even if it is only one of many that expose the absence of judicial independence in Tunisia. Because of Farhat's strong connection to France and France's close relations with Tunisia, your intervention in this case will make clear that France does not countenance the flagrant abuses of human rights to which Mr. Farhat fallen victim.
We respectfully ask that you intervene with Tunisian authorities to seek either Farhat's release from prison or a new trial without delay before a civilian court in which his full rights are respected. Such a trial must include an impartial investigation into his allegations of torture. If he is released, he should be free to exercise his right to travel to be reunited with his wife and children in France. Pending his release, we ask that you seek to ensure that his conditions of detention comply with minimal international norms, including the right to receive regular correspondence from his family.
Thank you for your consideration.
Acting Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division