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A court in Tunis today convicted lawyer Mohamed Abou for criticizing the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The Tunisian authorities should release Abou immediately.

Human Rights Watch attended the all-day hearing on Thursday, April 28. At about 1 a.m. this morning, the court sentenced Abou to 18 months in prison for an article he wrote that “insulted the judiciary” and “was likely to disturb the public order,” offenses under the press code and the penal code, respectively.

In a separate case also tried yesterday, the same court sentenced Abou to two years in prison for allegedly assaulting a woman lawyer in June 2002. Judge Mehrez Hammami, of the Tunis Court of First Instance, ruled that the sentences were to take effect immediately, meaning Abou must remain in prison even while he exercises his right to appeal.

“Instead of jailing critics like Mohamed Abou, Tunisia should be abolishing laws that criminalize freedom of expression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who observed the trial.

Authorities have detained Abou since March 1, the day after he published an article on the website Tunisnews ( criticizing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali for having invited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend a global conference that will take place in Tunis in November. In that article, Abou noted corruption allegations surrounding family members of both leaders, a subject considered taboo in Tunisia.

Observers suspect this article triggered Abou’s arrest, but he was charged instead for an article he published online on August 2004, comparing conditions in Tunisian prisons to those in the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. Authorities at the same time revived an old assault complaint against Abou in which a fellow lawyer accused Abou of beating her.

Yesterday, the trial judge refused defense requests to postpone the trial on the assault charges. The court scheduled a trial for this complaint only after Abou was arrested last month, nearly three years after the complaint had first been filed. Abou yesterday refused to testify during the assault trial, stating that he had not yet even designated a lawyer in this case.

Abou was found to have injured fellow lawyer Dalila Mrad during an altercation that occurred in June 2002. In a complaint filed at the time, Mrad claimed that injuries he inflicted necessitated hospital treatment. Mrad told Human Rights Watch yesterday that she had repeatedly lobbied the court after the incident, without success, to bring her complaint to trial. It was only after Abou’s critical articles appeared that the court scheduled the case. Members of Abou’s defense team told Human Rights Watch that in the incident, Abou had merely shoved Mrad in response to her assaulting him, but had caused her no lasting injury.

“A victim of assault has the right to a fair hearing, but the timing of this prosecution shows it is a politically motivated attempt to punish speech,” said Whitson.

Whitson reported that she was admitted to the courtroom and able to observe the proceedings with no constraints.

Abou is well-known in civil society circles in Tunis. He is a founding member of the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners and the Center for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, both of them human rights organizations the government has refused to recognize. He is also a member of the executive bureau of an unrecognized political party, the Congress for the Republic.

After his arrest in Tunis, Abou was transferred to a prison in the city of Le Kef, a three-hour drive from the capital, complicating access for his attorneys. Tunisia’s lawyers have mobilized in defense of their colleague, and more than 300 signed on to his defense team. Dozens have been maintaining a round-the-clock protest vigil at the Lawyers Club, across the street from the court where he was tried.

The February 28 article, which appeared in Arabic on the Tunisnews website, came at a time of continuing protests by some Tunisian opposition parties, students, unions and human rights organizations against the decision by the Tunisian government to invite Prime Minister Sharon to attend the World Summit on the Information Society. In November, Tunis is scheduled to host the U.N.-sponsored summit, which will discuss the information revolution and the "digital divide."

Human rights organizations have questioned the decision to hold this conference in Tunisia, a country that tolerates little criticism of the government and that blocks websites on the basis of their political content.

“By imprisoning Mohamed Abou for his online articles, Tunisia once again has cast doubt on its suitability to host a world conference on the information revolution,” Whitson said.

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