The arrest of a government critic shows the Tunisian government’s continued intolerance of dissent and nervousness about recent protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Though small in size, a series of demonstrations have been held or attempted recently on campuses and in cities across the country, against a government decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Tunisia later in the year.
Lawyer Mohamed Abou is accused of disseminating “false” information, libeling Tunisia’s judiciary, and inciting the public to disobey the laws, apparently on the basis of an article of his that appeared on a website, www.tunisnews.net, on February 28. He was detained the following day and could face a long prison term if convicted as charged. Human Rights Watch called for Abou’s immediate release in a letter sent to Minister of Justice and Human Rights Bechir Tekkari. Abou is due to appear before an investigating judge in Tunis today.
“Tunisia is a state where demonstrations are rarely allowed, if ever,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Mohamed Abou’s arrest demonstrates President Ben Ali’s refusal to permit Tunisians to exercise their fundamental political rights, including the freedom of expression.”
Tunisia is set to host a major global discussion of the information revolution and the “digital divide,” the World Summit on the Information Society, in November 2005. Human Rights Watch said that Abou’s detention is part of a wider effort to muzzle protests against the government’s decision to invite the Israeli prime minister to the U.N.-sponsored summit.
Tunisian authorities have banned numerous demonstrations called by some opposition parties, human rights organizations, unions, and student groups since the decision to invite Sharon became known on February 25. Police have forcibly dispersed protesters, injuring a number of men and women, and arresting dozens. The courts have already sentenced several students to prison terms for their role in the demonstrations.
Abou’s article compared President Ben Ali unflatteringly to Sharon. This article is what apparently triggered Abou’s arrest, but his lawyers told Human Rights Watch that his case file contains not this essay but an earlier one in which Abou compared prison conditions in Tunisia to those at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Human Rights Watch said that the Tunisian police took custody of Abou without presenting a proper arrest warrant and then transferred him from Tunis to the prison in Le Kef, more than 200 kilometers away, making it far more difficult for Abou to confer with his Tunis-based defense team.