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Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the action by Tunisian authorities to close down Editions Aloés, an independent publishing house in Tunis.

The government ordered the closure of Editions Aloés following a gathering there on April 9 of more than eighty people to discuss Tunisian government restrictions on press freedoms and to support journalist Toufik Ben Brik. Ben Brik, who writes for several European news organizations and is unable to publish in Tunisia, began a hunger strike at the offices of the publishing house on April 3 to protest continued official harassment and the confiscation of his passport.

On Monday the governor of Tunis ordered the publishing house closed for three months and sealed the office on the grounds that the Sunday meeting had been "unauthorized" and "disturbed the public order." At around 6:15 pm on Monday evening, police moved in to evacuate the building.

Ben Sedrine and Ben Brik are among the founding members of the Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie (CNLT), a human rights monitoring group that has continued to function despite the authorities' refusal to accept its application for legal status.

"This is the latest in a series of blatant assaults by the government on Tunisians who attempt to exercise peacefully their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "These events demonstrate the determination of the authorities to silence those like Sihem Ben Sedrine and Toufik Ben Brik, who confront the absence of basic human rights and democratic freedoms in Tunisia today."

Megally also called attention to the jailing on Saturday, April 8, of two persons associated with a Tunisian nongovernmental organization, the Rassemblement pour une Alternative Internationale de Dévelopment (RAID), and the proprietor of a copy shop. Fathi Chamki, Mohamned Chourabi, and Ihab al-Hani were accused of having in their possession documents and reports of the RAID and the CNLT. The three remained in detention as of April 12, and face various charges, including belonging to an illegal organization, spreading false information, and appealing to citizens to violate the law.


The offices of Editions Aloés were ransacked twice in December 1999, and the organization's computers and some archives were stolen. In late December and again in early January, security officials reportedly threatened employees of Editions Aloés in efforts to persuade them to spy on Ben Sedrine. On January 13, Editions Aloés' co-founder and literary director, Jean-François Poirier, a French national, was summarily dismissed from his position as assistant professor of philosophy at the Institut des Sciences Humaines in Tunis, and on February 13 he was given thirty hours to leave the country. In March the organization's telephone lines were cut. Ben Sedrine has also been deprived of her passport.

Toufik Ben Brik has been the target of numerous reprisals by the Tunisian authorities for his reporting on human rights issues in the country. On Monday, the same day as the closure of Editions Aloés, Ben Brik was arraigned before a judge on charges of spreading false information and defaming the authorities. These charges, which carry a maximum penalty of nine years in prison, were in response to a January article in La Tribune, a Swiss daily, on police harassment of Ben Sedrine, and to a February review in another Swiss newspaper of Notre Ami, Ben Ali (Our Friend Ben Ali), a book published last year in France that was critical of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Brik began a hunger strike on April 3 to demand the return of his passport, confiscated in April 1999. Following the forced closure of Editions Aloés, he is continuing his strike at the office of the CNLT, in the residence of Ben Sedrine and her husband, Omer Mestiri, secretary-general of the CNLT.

Ben Brik was injured last May in an attack by three unidentified men wielding bicycle chains shortly after publication of his article in a Swiss publication about the imprisonment of Khemais Ksila, a vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. In January 1999 a group of men presumed to be state agents smashed the windows of a car belonging to his wife, Azza, following publication of an article discussing the case of some arrested students.

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