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Human Rights Watch is writing to urge the immediate and unconditional release from prison of lawyer Mohamed Abou, who was arrested on March 1, one day after publishing online an article critical of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

According to our information, Mr. Abou, who lives in Tunis, is due to appear today before an investigating judge in a Tunis court to answer charges of “publishing false news in order to disturb the public order,” libeling the justice system, inciting the public to violate the law, and publishing writings “capable of disturbing the public order,” pursuant to Articles 42, 44, 49, 51, 68 and 72 of the press code. He could face a long prison term if convicted of these charges.

By placing Mr. Abou in pretrial custody for expressing his opinions, and by maintaining laws that provide prison terms as punishment for libel and reporting “false” news, Tunisia stands in stark violation of its obligations under international law to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

Defense lawyers informed us that Mr. Abou’s court file contains only one article he allegedly wrote, an essay that appeared online in August 2004 comparing prison conditions in Tunisia to those at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The article that Mr. Abou published the day before his arrest is not in the file, although it appears to have been the real catalyst for Mr. Abou’s arrest.

The February 28 article, which appeared in Arabic at the website, unflatteringly likens President Ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The article appeared at a time of continuing protests by some Tunisian opposition parties, students, unions, and human rights organizations against the decision by the government of Tunisia to invite Sharon to attend the World Summit on the Information Society. Tunis will host the U.N.-sponsored summit, which is taking place in November 2005 to discuss the information revolution and the "digital divide."

Mr. Abou is a member of an unrecognized political party, the Congress for the Republic. He is also a member of two human rights organizations, the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners and the Center for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. Authorities have long refused to grant legal recognition to these two organizations.

We are aware that official sources have mentioned in connection with Mr. Abou’s arrest a complaint against him for allegedly assaulting a lawyer, Ms. Dalila Ben Mrad. According to our information, the incident in question took place more than two years ago. Moreover, defense lawyers who saw Mr. Abou’s case file say it contains no document relating to this complaint. It appears to us that authorities have mentioned this complaint to obscure the real reason for Mr. Abou’s arrest, which is his harsh criticism of President Ben Ali.

We are also concerned by several aspects of the way that this case has so far been handled by the authorities. First, it appears that police took custody of Mr. Abou without presenting him with a proper arrest warrant. Second, it appears that a prosecution based on an essay published in August 2004 would violate the three-month-long statute of limitations of Article 78 of the press code. Third, we are concerned that Mr. Abou, who lives in Tunis and whose case is being handled by an investigating judge in that city, was transferred, on or about March 10, from a prison in Tunis to one in Le Kef, more than 200 kilometers away. This unusual transfer makes it far more difficult for Mr. Abou to confer with his Tunis-based defense team.

While these aspects of Mr. Abou’s case raise doubts as to whether his rights are being respected during the judicial process, we wish to reiterate our main point: It is unacceptable that Mr. Abou should be behind bars or facing a prison term in the first place, merely for having for having expressed opinions – however critical or harshly worded they may be.

I thank you for your consideration and welcome your comments on this or any other matter.

Sincerely yours,

Sarah Leah Whitson

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