Dr. Sadok Chourou

© Private

(New York) - The Tunisian government released a long-serving political prisoner only to re-arrest him a few weeks later solely for expressing his political views to the media, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called for the Tunisian authorities to abandon the new charges against Sadok Chorou and release him, as a Tunis appeals court prepares to hear his case on March 14.

"For expressing his views to the media, Chorou finds himself back in prison after spending nearly two decades there on dubious charges," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "What are Tunisian authorities afraid of?"

On November 5, 2008, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ordered the release of the last 21 members of the banned Islamist Nahdha movement still detained. All of the freed prisoners reportedly received a "conditional release," meaning they could be re-imprisoned without a trial to serve the remainder of their sentences for unspecified misconduct.

Hundreds of members of Nahdha, including Chorou, had been imprisoned after they were convicted in unfair trials for politically motivated offenses in the early 1990s. But police re-arrested Chorou on December 3, 2008, after the 61-year-old chemistry professor gave interviews to two pan-Arab media outlets, IslamOnline.net on November 8, and London-based Al-Hiwar television on December 1, about his years in prison and the political situation in Tunisia. In those interviews, he urged Tunisian authorities to lift their 17-year-old ban on an-Nahdha.

In a one-day trial in a Tunis court on December 13, the judge ruled that these interviews violated Tunisia's law of associations prohibiting "maintaining an unrecognized association" (Article 30), namely an-Nahdha, and sentenced Chorou to one year in prison. Chorou had argued in court that he had spoken as an individual in these interviews rather than on behalf of any organization.

Chorou was president of an-Nahdha when the authorities cracked down on the movement in the early 1990s, arresting hundreds of members and, in 1992, successfully prosecuting 265 of them, including Chorou, in a military court; they convicted them of plotting to overthrow the state and set up an Islamic republic. Human rights organizations that observed the trial at the time, including Human Rights Watch, criticized the proceedings as highly flawed and unjust.

Today, Chorou remains in Nador prison, after the court refused defense motions for his provisional release. When conditionally freed in November 2008, Chorou had been serving a 30-year sentence, reduced from the life sentence the military court originally imposed on him in 1992. He lives in Mornag, near Tunis.

Shortly after Ben Ali became president in 1987, an-Nahdha sought legal recognition as a party. The authorities refused the application but tolerated the party for a short period, before launching a crackdown against it in 1990 and formally outlawing it the following year.

An-Nahdha's leadership-in-exile says it routinely condemns violence and is committed to using only democratic and nonviolent means to achieving a democratic and tolerant Islamic state. It categorically denies the existence of the coup plot for which its leaders were convicted in 1992. The government continues to claim that an-Nahdha is an extremist group willing to use violence to install a repressive theocracy.

Tunisia's Organic Law on Political Parties prohibits (in Article 3) parties "whose principles, activities and programs are fundamentally based on a religion." Such a broad restriction violates Tunisia's obligations to uphold the right to freedom of association, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and does not meet the criteria for the very limited exceptions permitted to this right under international law.

The Tunisian government has never convincingly justified its continued ban on an-Nahdha, which has publicly renounced violence since at least the early 1990s. The courts have imprisoned hundreds of Tunisians since the 1990s merely for the offense of belonging to, or "maintaining" an-Nahdha. The law used to prosecute Chorou provides, "Whoever takes part in maintaining or re-creating, directly or indirectly, associations that lack legal status or that have been dissolved, shall be subject to a term of one to five years in prison and a fine of one hundred to one thousand dinars (US$70 - 700)."

In his interview with IslamOnline.net, Chorou said:

"[President Ben Ali's conditional release of an-Nahdha prisoners in November] is a step towards improving the relationship between an-Nahdha and the state. We hope that this will eventually lead to the movement being granted the right to act politically in a legal framework. ... Now that the last of an-Nahdha's leadership has been released from prison, we hope that the movement will regain some of its former strength. To do this, we must overcome the obstacles before us and begin to rebuild, hoping that we can restore the popular support we once had. ... Any initiative for reconciliation is predicated on the state sincerely and effectively accepting such an overture. ... But I don't think that the political demands of the movement, which can be summarized as being allowed to openly practice party politics with the aim of reform and change, are open to negotiation or to being waived. ... During my time in prison, an-Nahdha had decided that the goal of its political work was to achieve a comprehensive and inclusive national reconciliation that restores political equilibrium and prevents a monopoly by any one party in deciding the fate of the country."

"Sadok Chorou is behind bars because of an unjust law criminalizing membership in associations, unjustly applied by the Tunisian government to crush dissent," said Whitson. "Prosecutors should drop the case and allow Chorou his freedom."