Various human rights organizations said that human rights defenders and journalists in Tunisia are suffering from a disturbing escalation of harassment and intimidation.
Last week, as the trial of Tunisian prominent human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui approached, human rights lawyers and activists were put under further pressure. The trial of Radhia Nasraoui and her 20 co-defendants, accused of links with an unauthorized association and participation in unauthorized meetings, has attracted wide attention both in Tunisia and abroad. Some 20 foreign lawyers and several foreign diplomats attended the trial on 15 May and some 120 Tunisian lawyers were present for the defence. However, having deliberately failed to bring three of the defendants from prison to the courtroom, the Tunisian authorities postponed the trial using their absence as a pretext. The authorities have often employed such tactics to postpone a trial in an attempt to inconvenience international observers and prevent them from attending hearings.
On 24 May 1999, Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist and member of the Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie, CNLT (National Council for Liberties in Tunisia), was arrested and detained for several hours for interrogation. The previous week, on 20 May he was attacked outside his home in Tunis in broad daylight by three individuals armed with chains . In the preceding weeks, he had been prevented from leaving the country and had his passport confiscated. His wife, Azza, had her car windows smashed as she was shopping with their two young children. These incidents appear to be the result of a number of articles he had recently published in France and Switzerland in which he strongly criticized the deterioration in the human rights situation and the increasing lack of public liberties and press freedom in Tunisia. The CPJ joins the other organizations in expressing concerns for his safety.
Human rights lawyers and activists have recently come under further pressure. Omar Mestiri, secretary-general of the CNLT, was arrested on 12 May 1999 at his home in Tunis. He was detained until the following evening in the Ministry of the Interior and was questioned about his activities within the CNLT, which was set up on 10 December 1998 but was refused authorization by the Tunisian authorities last March.
The previous day the CNLT had issued an appeal condemning the arrest of 10 senior members of the Union générale tunisienne du travail, UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers). These trade unionists were arrested and held for two days in the Ministry of the Interior following a petition they and others had issued condemning interference by the authorities in the affairs of the UGTT. On 22 May Mohamed Tahar Chaieb, another leading trade unionist and university lecturer, was arrested at Tunis airport upon returning from Paris. He was detained for two days in the Ministry of the Interior and was interrogated about his contacts with media, human rights organizations and trade unions abroad.
In recent weeks the CNLT has issued several statements expressing concern at the poor human rights situation and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and association in Tunisia. Several members of the CNLT, as well as many other human rights defenders and lawyers have recently had their telephone lines cut and have had their passports confiscated. Police surveillance, a regular feature in the daily life of many human rights defenders, has recently increased and a number of lawyers and human rights defenders, including members of the CNLT, of the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, ATFD (Tunisian Association of Democratic Women), and of the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme, LTDH (Tunisian Human Rights League), report being constantly followed.
Dozens of other human rights defenders and their relatives have been targeted by the authorities. LTDH vice-president Khemais Ksila, detained since September 1997, continues to serve a three-year prison sentence for issuing a communique criticizing the human rights situation in Tunisia. His wife and children have been continually harassed and recently his 11-year-old son was prevented from leaving the country to go to Egypt to receive a human rights award on behalf of his father. Human rights lawyer Najet Yaqoubi, a member of the ATFD, is constantly followed by police and her home and office are under surveillance. Human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui has been prevented from leaving the capital since March 1998 and was sentenced to 15 days imprisonment, suspended, last February for leaving the capital to attend the funeral of her mother-in-law. Her children have been intimidated by security forces on several occasions. Human rights lawyer Najib Hosni is prevented from working, his telephone has been disconnected and he is one of more than 25 lawyers who are refused a passport. Mohamed Bedoui, brother of former LTDH President and current CNLT spokesperson Moncef Marzouki, was imprisoned last March and is now serving a six-month prison sentence for refusing to be comply with an order to report to police daily. Dr. Moncef Marzouki cannot obtain a passport and his telephone has also been disconnected.
AI, the CPJ, the FIDH, Human Rights Watch, the LCHR, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the OMCT, and RSF are gravely concerned by recent developments in Tunisia, notably the increasingly frequent and serious incidents of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and of those who seek to exercise their right to freedom of expression and association. The organizations call on the Tunisian authorities to:
*Put an immediate end to the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists and lift current restrictions imposed on them and ensure that their telephone and fax lines be restored and they be allowed to enjoy their right to freedom of expression, association and movement inside and outside the country;
*ensure that human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists and their families be protected and be allowed to carry out their human rights activities without interference, intimidation and persecution;
*release LTDH Vice-President Khemais Ksila immediately and unconditionally and drop all charges against human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui and her co-defendants;
*ensure that a prompt and full investigation be carried out into the attack against Taoufik Ben Brik and that those responsible for the attack be brought to justice.