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Tunisia - HRW World Report 99 in Arabic



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As Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s presidency entered its second decade, there were no indications that his firm grip on power, the absence of political violence, and a stable economy were tempting him to allow Tunisians greater freedom to express themselves. Open political debate and opposition activity continued to be almost nonexistent, thanks to laws that criminalized various forms of speech and “unlicensed” political activities, intensive police surveillance and harassment of citizens, and a press and judiciary that lacked independence.

Authorities exploited concern over the strife in neighboring Algeria and recalled sporadic incidents of Islamist violence several years ago at home in cracking down hardest on Islamists. Among those imprisoned for politically motivated offenses—thought to exceed 2,000—most had been convicted of “membership in an unlicensed organization,” namely the Islamist Nahdha movement, or related nonviolent “offenses” such as distributing tracts or attending meetings.

There were also a small number of suspected members of proscribed leftwing parties who were convicted for the same offenses, as well as persons whose modest assistance to prisoners’ families earned them sentences for the “unauthorized collection of money or donations.”

The remnants of the Nahdha movement were active mainly abroad and conducted no visible activities inside Tunisia. Its leader-in-exile, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, continued to characterize the movement as moderate, democratic, and opposed to all forms of violence while the government continued to assail it as extremist and terrorist.

Prison conditions were poor, according to reports from lawyers and ex-prisoners. Overcrowding was severe, a situation not dictated by economic constraints: Tunisia had one of the highest per capita incomes on the continent. Beatings by guards were frequent and disciplinary measures cruel and degrading. Political prisoners were shuttled incessantly among institutions, forcing families to travel great distances for visits. Several leaders of the Nahdha movement were held in isolation for months or years at a time.

During the 1992 military court mass trial of an-Nahdha’s suspected leaders and members, the Tunisian press reported the defendants’ allegations of torture during interrogation. Torture persisted in 1998 but had become a taboo topic for the media. For example, there was no coverage when security forces reportedly tortured some of the sixteen students arrested between February and April on suspicion of membership in an unlicensed leftwing “terrorist” organization, holding unauthorized meetings, defamation against the authorities, and other charges. According to affidavits taken by their lawyers, Imen Derouiche was badly beaten by guards at Mannouba prison for women, while injuries inflicted to Lotfi Hammami’s genitals reportedly put him in need of surgery that he had not received by October. He and the other fifteen were still in pretrial detention as this report went to press.

In its December 1997 report to the U.N. Committee against Torture, the government claimed that physical abuse of detainees occurred only rarely and was penalized. The report detailed an impressive array of laws that could safeguard against torture—if enforced. In practice, complaints of torture rarely resulted in a confession being discarded as evidence, and if the complaints were ever investigated, the plaintiffs and their lawyers were not informed of the results.

Released political prisoners were harassed intensively. They were often ordered to sign in one or more times daily with police, sometimes at stations quite far from their homes. During 1998, however, this requirement seemed to be enforced less abusively. Former political prisoners were almost always refused passports. They were generally excluded from public sector jobs and private sector employers were pressured not to hire them.

Authorities harassed and even imprisoned family members as a way of intimidating and punishing critics. This seemed to be the case with ex-prisoner Mohamed Ali Bedoui, the brother of outspoken human rights activist Moncef Marzouki. Bedoui in January received a six-month sentence for failing to report daily to the local police station even though the police had reportedly earlier told him he was no longer required to do so.

Families of activists were subjected to police surveillance and house searches at all hours, and their passports were sometimes confiscated for no apparent reason other than blood kinship. Radhia Aouididi, who is engaged to a Tunisian political refugee living in France, was given a prison term in 1998 for attempting to leave Tunisia illegally after she was arbitrarily denied a passport. Rachida Ben Salem, the wife of an exiled activist, was arrestedand sentenced in 1997 in a similar case. A young man in western Tunisia told Human Rights Watch that his past imprisonment for Nahdha activities was the reason given when his brother was dismissed from a factory job and when his sister’s fiancé, a member of the security forces, broke off the engagement. His testimony was consistent with others collected around the country.

Persons who denounced repression were sometimes imprisoned after conviction on trumped-up criminal charges. In July, Tarek Soussi, a physically disabled ex-prisoner in Bizerte, announced he would no longer sign in with the police, after six years of being ordered extrajudicially to do so. The police promptly threatened him with imprisonment and five days later arrested and charged him with assaulting a vendor, a highly implausible scenario given his disability. The judge presiding over his trial refused a defense motion to have Soussi’s alleged victim appear in court and on September 3 Soussi received a five-month sentence.

Two better-known individuals who had formerly been imprisoned on spurious criminal charges were opposition politician Mohamed Mouada and lawyer Nejib Hosni. Hosni, who had been outspoken at home and abroad on Tunisia’s human rights abuses, was deprived of his passport and telephone, and forbidden to resume his law practice. The pressure on Mouada intensified after he traveled in late 1997 to Europe and met with European parliamentarians and human rights organizations. Upon his return, prosecutors questioned him about his contacts abroad and investigated him on subversion charges. He was placed under a de facto partial house arrest, prevented from meeting people freely, and barred from leaving the greater Tunis area.

Tunisian law permits the prosecution of citizens for their conduct outside the country. This is the case even when their alleged actions are legal in the country in which they take place and protected under international human rights law to which Tunisia is a party. Scores of students returning home from Europe for visits have been arrested and interrogated about their contacts and meetings with Tunisians abroad. Many of these were convicted and jailed for exercising their rights to free speech and association. Nizar Chaâri, vacationing at home after obtaining a doctorate at University of Toulouse, was arrested on May 29. On June 16—nineteen days after his arrest and nine days longer than Tunisian law allows for pre-arraignment detention—Chaâri was brought before an investigating magistrate, accused of belonging to an illegal organization and associating with criminal elements, and placed in pre-trial detention.

In 1997, the government announced a bill that would put under judicial authority all decisions regarding the issuance of passports and the imposition of travel restrictions. In an October 12 statement, the Tunisian Human Rights League and four other Tunisian organizations urged withdrawal of the draft bill. They argued that the reasons for which a judge could bar travel under the bill were excessively broad and violated the presumption of innocence. Privately, activists said judicial oversight would make no difference until judges showed more independence.

In two cases that cast a shadow on judges’ potential roles in defending the constitutional right to freedom of movement, authorities explained that it was judges investigating criminal charges who had imposed the travel bans on human rights activists Sihem Ben Sedrine and Mustapha Ben Jaafar. This information, which was divulged in late 1997 in a letter to European parliamentarians, was the first that either Ben Jaafar or Ben Sedrine had heard about their being under formal investigation since their passports were seized in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Neither was formally charged with any offense.

A new postal law, decreed June 2, stated that its objectives included “assuring the confidentiality of correspondence.” But the law also provided that “postal materials that ... could harm public order or security are not acceptable. If [such] mail is will be confiscated in conformity with the laws in effect.”

In a major address in November 1997, President Ben Ali exhorted Tunisian journalists to shun self-censorship and ensure pluralism in the press. But during the next year, the press continued unanimously and uncritically to support major government policies and ignore domestic human rights problems. When Taoufik Ben Brik, who writes for foreign publications, described the heavy-handed police surveillance of dissidents in the June 12 issue of the French daily La Croix , he was brought before a Ministry of Interior official who pressured him to change professions. Ben Brik continued his work but remained under surveillance. On a more positive note, laws regulating the use of satellite dishes were not vigorously enforced, permitting an increasing number of Tunisians to watch foreign newscasts in addition to state-controlled local television.

President Ben Ali, in November 1997, announced measures to guarantee opposition parties a minimum of 20 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the next elections, scheduled for 1999. But there were no signs that this pluralist initiative would extend to parties that openly challenge the essential elements of the government’s program. All such groupings remain illegal or excluded from parliament and marginalized.

Small indications of increasing political assertiveness included student strikes for better conditions at the universities, some bold declarations on human rights conditions signed by independent activists, and election results within the national bar association and the Association of Young Lawyers that were seen as a rebuff to the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally.

Tunisian officials emphasized the many governmental agencies set up to monitor and address human rights issues. Individual problems were sometimes resolved when citizens filed complaints with units set up at various ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. But, according to many human rights activists, prominent cases or entrenched abuses could only be resolved by high-level political decisions.







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