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Tunisia: Police Use Force to Block Rights Meeting

Government Brands Human Rights Group’s Gathering ‘Illegal’

Tunisian police used force to block a human rights gathering on Saturday, demonstrating once again the state’s intolerance for independent human rights activities, Human Rights Watch said today.

On a day when Tunisia’s state-controlled newspapers headlined President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s achievements on the occasion of International Human Rights Day (December 10), scores of police in Tunis surrounded the headquarters of one of the country’s leading rights groups, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie, or CNLT). Police blocked access to people hoping to attend the organization’s general assembly, and also brutally assaulted two CNLT members and another human rights defender.

In recent years, Tunisian police have prevented independent human rights gatherings on dozens of occasions, often using violence to disperse those hoping to gain access to the building where the meeting was scheduled.

The repression of human rights gatherings has occurred at a time when banners around Tunis herald the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which the city is hosting in November. The summit is billed as a global discussion of the impact of the digital revolution and how best to bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

“In hosting the U.N. summit on the information society, Tunisia wants to be seen as a global leader in expanding access to information,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But when it comes to its human rights record, the Tunisian government is a leader in suppressing information.”

In addition to preventing meetings of the CNLT, Tunisian authorities are blocking local access to the organization’s website, as well to many other websites that focus on human rights and politics in Tunisia. The official and quasi-official media observe a complete blackout on the organization’s activities and statements.

A government official confirmed that police had prevented the December 11 gathering, saying the CNLT “is not a legal organization.” The official, speaking anonymously to Agence France-Presse, denied that the police used violence.

Although Tunisia’s constitution guarantees freedom of association, Tunisian authorities have refused legal recognition to every truly independent human rights organization that has applied over the past decade. In 1999, the CNLT appealed the refusal of its application by the Interior Ministry, but five years later the administrative court has yet to hear the case.

In July, police in Tunis blocked another independent group, the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Association internationale de solidarité
avec les prisonniers politiques, or AISPP), from holding its general assembly in its president’s law office. On June 15, authorities had denied the organization legal recognition.

In the case of two other rights organizations, authorities at the Interior Ministry have refused even to accept the applications for legal recognition by the Association against Torture (Association de lutte contre la torture en Tunisie, or ALTT) and the Tunisian Center for an Independent Judiciary (Centre Tunisien pour l’indépendance de la justice, or CTIJ).

Although legally recognized, the Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue tunisienne pour la défense des droits de l'homme, or LTDH) also faces constant government harassment. On November 28, police massed in front of the League’s office in Kairouan and set up roadblocks at the entrance of the city to prevent people from reaching a conference on the recent national elections. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police assaulted Hamma Hammami, head of the unrecognized Tunisian Communist Workers Party, when he approached the League office. Tunisian officials denied that any violence was used. One day before the thwarted meeting, Interior Ministry officials in Kairouan had warned the League that the meeting could not take place because its co-organizers included representatives of unrecognized organizations.

“Tunisian authorities boast that there are more than 8,000 legally recognized associations in the country,” Whitson said. “But as long as the government bans or harasses the handful of groups that dare to question government policies, freedom of association cannot be said to exist in Tunisia.”

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