(New York, November 6, 2008) - President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia freed several prominent political prisoners on November 5, 2008, and Human Rights Watch urged authorities to release all persons held for nonviolent political activities and to end the harassment of former political prisoners.
Authorities conditionally released all 21 remaining members of the banned Islamist movement an-Nahdha, who have been imprisoned since 1990 and 1991 and were convicted in military court trials in 1992 of plotting to overthrow the state.
The approach of November 7, the anniversary of Ben Ali's coming to power in 1987 that authorities call "The Change," has become a frequent occasion for prisoner releases.
"Tunisia's release of the political prisoners is good news," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But a truly historic change would be general amnesty for people convicted for their nonviolent political beliefs and activities, and an end to the harassment of former political prisoners."
Tunisian authorities also said they have in recent days freed another 23 persons convicted of crimes for their roles in protests during 2008 about social and economic conditions in a mining region in Gafsa governorate.
All of the freed prisoners reportedly received a "conditional release," meaning they could be re-imprisoned without a trial before the expiration of their sentences for unspecified misconduct. Former political prisoners in Tunisia routinely face years of harassment by the authorities after their release from detention, including intensive police surveillance, restrictions on their movement within the country and a refusal to issue them passports.
The courts had initially sentenced several of the Nadha prisoners to life terms, later commuted to periods of up to 30 years. Before the releases on November 5, most of the 265 Nahdha members and sympathizers convicted after two trials in military courts in 1992 had already left prison, after serving out their terms or after earlier presidential pardons.
Ben Ali cracked down on Nahdha in 1990. Tunisian authorities maintain that Nahdha is an extremist movement that seeks to establish a fundamentalist state. They also deny that the country has political prisoners, claiming that all prisoners, including those who acted out of political motives, have been tried and fairly convicted for criminal offenses.
However, human rights organizations that attended the 1992 Nahdha trials, including Human Rights Watch, criticized them as unfair and concluded that the charges of a coup plot had not been proven. The courts did not convict any of the defendants of carrying out acts of violence. Since that time, Nahdha's leaders have repeatedly stated that they oppose violence and the movement has not been linked to any violent activities.
"Human Rights Watch was in the military court back in 1992 and saw how the judges convicted these men and their co-defendants in mass trials on the basis of dubious evidence," Whitson said.
The 21 Nahdha prisoners serving since 1990 or 1991 who were released today are: Noureddine Arbaoui, Bouraoui Makhlouf, Hédi Ghali, Mohammed Néjib el-Louati, Ibrahim Dridi, Hichem Bennour, Elias Romdhani, Sadok Chorou, Chadli Nakache, Ridha Boukadi, Mondher Béjaoui, Béchir el-Louati, Abdelkrim Baalouche, Abdelmalek Benrabah, Hocine al-Ghodbane, Abdelbasset as-Sli'i, Wahid as-Srairi, Wasfi az-Zoughlami, Kemal al-Ghadbane, Mounir al-Hannachi, and Sadok al-Akari.
Among those released in early November in connection with the 2008 events in Gafsa governorate is Zakia Dhifaoui, a schoolteacher from the city of Kairouan sentenced to four-and-a-half months in prison for participating in a peaceful demonstration in July in solidarity with prisoners from the area. Tunisian human rights activists have so far confirmed the release of 13 other prisoners convicted in relation to the 2008 protests on such charges as disturbing the order in a public place, insulting a public official, and disturbing the property of others in the context of the protests in the mining region.
Despite this week's releases, hundreds of Tunisians remain imprisoned for politically motivated offenses after being convicted in trials that lacked basic fair-trial guarantees, such as credible investigations into allegations by defendants that their interrogators had tortured them to force them to sign false confessions.