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Tunisia: Harassment of Human Rights Defenders and Organizations

Sihem Bensedrine, a journalist and founding member of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), was assaulted on January 5, 2004, as she left her home in downtown Tunis to go to an Internet café. She was accosted by three men in plainclothes, one of whom tripped and then beat and insulted her. Ms Bensedrine accused the police of carrying out the assault; she and other human rights activists have been beaten on previous occasions by men who were never identified or brought to justice. On January 13, 2004, she was turned away at the Interior Ministry when she tried, for the third time since 1999, to register her magazine Kalima. By law, registration is supposed to be a mere formality, but the refusal by authorities to issue a receipt for the notification -a common practice when it comes to independent journals and organizations - makes her publication legally vulnerable.

Lassaad Jouhri, a human rights activist and ex-political prisoner, was assaulted on August 30, 2003, by four men in plainclothes in front of the downtown Tunis law office of Mohamed Nouri. This attack resembled two prior assaults on him by state security officers. Jouhri has been a key intermediary between prisoners and their families, on the one hand, and those seeking information about human rights conditions in Tunisia, on the other. Injuries he sustained from torture in prison years ago have left him disabled.  
 
Police have long harassed Radhia Nasraoui, a Tunis lawyer known for her outspoken promotion of human rights and defense of political prisoners. They have subjected her and her daughters to menacing surveillance and intimidated her clients. Her home and office have been the target of numerous suspicious break-ins in previous years. On July 13, 2003, unidentified men assaulted her.  
Mohamed Nouri, a prominent rights lawyer and chair of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP), was prevented from leaving the country on December 9, 2003, as he was planning to attend a round-table meeting on freedom of expression in Geneva. The pretext was a judicial investigation into a charge of disseminating "false" information several months earlier.  
 
Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, president of the Tunisian Center for an Independent Judiciary (CIJT), was dismissed in December 2001 from his judgeship for writing an open letter to President Ben Ali criticizing the lack of judicial independence. In August 2003, he was accused with Mohammed Nouri of disseminating "false" information. He has been prevented from leaving the country since November 2001.  
 
Abdullah Zouari, a journalist for the now-defunct publication Al-Fajr, linked to the Nahdha party, spent 11 years in prison after an unfair trial on charges of "membership in an illegal organization." Freed in November 2002, he helped to publicize human rights abuses in the southern region to which he has been banished. In July he was re-arrested and is now serving a new nine-month sentence on charges of violating an administrative order restricting his movements.  
 
Independent human rights organizations like the CIJT, the AISPP, and the CNLT have never been legally recognized by the government. The venerable Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), while legal, has been hampered by government-inspired legal maneuvers designed to undermine its independence and outspokenness. In November 2003, the government prevented the League from receiving a grant from the European Commission.  
 
Tunisia: Recommended Steps on Human Rights  
 
Tunisian authorities should:  

  • Declare an amnesty for all political prisoners convicted for activities not linked to acts of violence. All other prisoners convicted for politically motivated acts in proceedings that did not conform to international standards for a fair trial should be granted a new and fair trial or released. Pending such action, authorities should bring conditions for prisoners up to international norms by ending practices that include extended isolation regimes for selected political prisoners and the deprivation of reading and writing materials. Those in long-term isolation from other prisoners include Habib Ellouz and Ali Laaridh, serving a life term and fifteen years respectively after being convicted in unfair mass trials before military courts in 1992. 
  • End harassment of released political prisoners by granting them passports. Cases of ex-prisoners denied passports include Ali Ben Hedi Rouahi, from the city of Bizerte, who is unable to join his family in Europe; Lassaad Jouhri, a human rights defender from Tunis who was tortured while in prison, and who is being denied even a national ID card; Hedi Ben Boubaker, from Golaat (Douz), who was released in November 1999 and cannot join his wife in France; and Hatem Ben Romdhane, from Tunis, released in January 2003.  
  •  End harassment of human rights defenders, notably by investigating the pattern of physical assaults on them and bringing to justice the men who carried them out. Such assaults in public places by unidentified men are too common to be coincidental and have never resulted in the identification and punishment of the perpetrators. 
  • End arbitrary travel bans on former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui of the Tunisian Center for an Independent Judiciary (CIJT) and lawyer Mohammed Nouri of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP).  
  • End legal harassment of human rights organizations. Authorities have refused legal authorization to human rights organizations, including the CNLT, AISPP, and CIJT. On Saturday, January 3, 2004 police blocked efforts by the AISPP to hold a congress. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) has legal status but is facing constant legal and administrative pressures from the government, including politically motivated lawsuits challenging its internal elections and, recently, blockage of a grant issued to the LTDH by the European Union.

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