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Tunisian authorities should release a 29-year-old man imprisoned for copying an online statement from an obscure group that threatened terror attacks, and then pasting it in a discussion forum he moderated, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a letter to Tunisia’s president, Human Rights Watch called for the release of Ali Ramzi Bettibi, who was arrested a year ago last Wednesday and sentenced to four years in prison after he reposted a statement from a group calling itself “The Group of the Islamic Jihadist Fighters – Ouqba ben Nafi’ Branch.” The statement threatened car bombings and attacks on embassies in Tunisia if then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon visited Tunis for the U.N.-sponsored Internet summit in November.

“Bettibi should be freed because the government never proved that he had a criminal intent to threaten others or to incite violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Under these circumstances, cutting and pasting on the Internet should not be a crime.”

While strongly condemning the jihadist group’s threat of terror attacks, Human Rights Watch said that Tunisian courts failed to show that Bettibi himself had engaged in either criminal incitement or threatening behavior by reposting this statement online. Bettibi’s prosecution follows several others in which courts sentenced groups of young men to long prison terms on charges of belonging to incipient terror networks, partly on the basis of evidence that they had viewed and downloaded information from militant Islamist websites.

“The Tunisian government is sending the message that downloading or re-posting information it finds objectionable can lead to prison,” said Whitson. “However deplorable this threat was, the mere act of reposting the information online should not be a crime.”

Today, Human Rights Watch published in Arabic a 65-page report documenting patterns of Internet censorship and repression in Tunisia. This country report is a translation of the Tunisia chapter of “False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa,” a report that Human Rights Watch released in Tunis on November 15 at the World Summit on the Information Society.

The report details how authorities in Tunisia tightly monitor Internet use, blocking access to numerous websites containing information about human rights abuses in the country and criticism of government policies. Zoheir Yahiaoui, the editor of a dissident website, was arrested in 2002 and jailed for 18 months. In 2005, a Tunisian court handed down a three-year prison sentence to Mohamed Abou, a lawyer who published online articles harshly critical of Tunisia’s president and of prison conditions in the country.

Ali Ramzi Bettibi is among the more than 300 political prisoners who did not benefit from the presidential pardon announced on February 25, which freed or conditionally freed a total of some 1650 prisoners, including more than 80 political prisoners.

In its letter to President Ben Ali, Human Rights Watch urged that Bettibi be unconditionally released from prison. The letter also asked the president to order an investigation into Bettibi’s allegations that police tortured him after his arrest, and forced him to sign a “confession” he had not read.

After arresting Bettibi in Kram, near Tunis, police transported Bettibi to the Ministry of Interior in the center of the Tunisian capital, family members told Human Rights Watch. They said agents beat him with batons all over his body, notably on the soles of his feet (a form of torture known as falaqa), and threatened to apply electric current to his body if he did not sign a confession. Human Rights Watch challenged the government’s explanation that it was proper for the trial judge in the case to deny Bettibi’s request for a medical examination for signs of torture.

To view the letter from Human Rights Watch to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali please visit:

To read the Human Rights Watch report, “False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa,” please visit:

To read the Tunisia chapter of the report in Arabic, please visit:

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