Tunisian authorities should stop harassing journalist and former political prisoner Abdallah Zouari, and end his banishment in the remote south of the country, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since Zouari completed an 11-year prison sentence in 2002, authorities have sought to silence and punish him because of his outspoken criticism of government policies, notably on human rights. Zouari has been confined to a rural district in Medenine province, 500 kilometers from his family’s home in suburban Tunis, jailed three times, placed under round-the-clock police surveillance and intermittently prevented from using local Internet cafés to communicate with others.
Zouari has been on a hunger strike since January 23 to protest the rejection of his numerous written requests to authorities for permission to visit his family.
“The Tunisian government is constantly promoting its record on human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “But it will convince the world that things are changing only when critics like Abdallah Zouari are allowed to travel and speak freely.”
When arrested in 1991, Zouari was a high school Arabic teacher and a journalist with al-Fajr, an organ of the Islamist Nahdha party. His arrest was part of a massive crackdown authorities launched against that party after deciding to outlaw it. Zouari was among the Nahdha figures convicted in a mass military court trial the following year on charges of attempting to overthrow the state. Organizations that observed the trial, including Human Rights Watch, criticized it as patently unfair at the time.
Zouari was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years of “administrative control.” Upon his release, authorities ordered him to reside in Hassi Jerbi, in Medenine province, a locality to which he had no connection other than that his wife’s family comes from there. Zouari grew up in the Monastir area and was living at the time of his 1991 arrest in suburban Tunis, where his wife and four of his children continue to live. Tunis is listed as the place of residence on their identification cards, and the children attend school there.
Although released political prisoners in Tunisia commonly confront a range of arbitrary restrictions, the de facto internal banishment of an ex-prisoner is rare. This measure seems tailored in Zouari’s case to silence someone who kept meticulous records of prison conditions and who made clear that a decade behind bars had not blunted his determination to criticize government policies and collaborate openly with rights groups.
Tunisian authorities insisted, in a statement, that the penal code gave the interior minister discretion to determine Zouari’s place of residence as part of his administrative control. They added that Zouari’s three convictions since 2002 were pronounced by the courts for infractions of Tunisian law and that each was confirmed on appeal. This showed, they said, that Zouari’s case had nothing to do with the “freedom to ‘live a normal life with his family.’”
But the broader treatment of Zouari leaves little doubt that authorities are persecuting him because of his outspokenness on politics and human rights.
Zouari filed an appeal before an administrative court of his confinement shortly after it was imposed in 2002, arguing that any post-prison administrative control should not include separating him from his family, social milieu and employment prospects. More than two years later, Zouari is still waiting for a review of his appeal.
On December 11, a Human Rights Watch representative observed what were clearly plainclothes police stationed at three different posts within 100 meters of Zouari’s house. Zouari said they are there around the clock, and openly trail him by car whenever he leaves the village.
Authorities have also sought to prevent Zouari from communicating with the outside world. On January 22, after Zouari had used an Internet café in the nearby town of Zarzis to disseminate news of his impending hunger strike, the district chief of security reportedly ordered the owners of all four of the town’s Internet cafés to deny him access. Zouari said this information was provided to him by one of the café owners.
This was not the first effort by authorities to prevent Zouari from accessing the Internet. On April 19, 2003, an Internet café owner in Zarzis, apparently on police instructions, prevented Zouari from using a computer in her café. When Zouari filed a complaint for denial of services, the owner charged him with defaming her, an accusation he denies. A cantonal court in July 2003 convicted Zouari of defamation and sentenced him to four months in prison, even though the supposed victim did not appear in court. His own complaint was dismissed.
These incidents reflect Tunisia’s wider policy of Internet censorship through surveillance of Internet cafés and the blocking of websites deemed critical of the government. These include the sites of the three online magazines to which Zouari contributes occasional articles, Tunisnews (www.tunisnews.net), NahdhaNet (www.nahdha.net), and Kalima (www.kalimatunisie.com).
On August 17, 2003, while free on appeal, Zouari was arrested on charges of violating his administrative control when he traveled, together with three visiting human rights lawyers, to the market town of Ben Ghardane, some 40 kilometers from his home. Zouari said at the time that he had believed that he was allowed to go to Ben Ghardane, especially after traveling there on previous occasions, under close police surveillance, without consequences. On August 29, 2003, a cantonal court gave Zouari a nine-month sentence for violating his administrative control, under Article 150 of the penal code. Zouari served that term consecutively with his earlier four-month sentence for defamation, and was freed in September 2004. In 2002, Zouari had also served two months of an eight-month sentence on an earlier charge of violating his administrative control, before being released for “humanitarian reasons.”