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(Geneva) - Tunisia should honor its pledge to grant Human Rights Watch access to its prisons, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an open letter sent today to members of the UN Human Rights Committee and to member nations of the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said that although Tunisia had announced before these bodies a year ago that the organization would be able to visit its prisons, it was obstructing the visits by setting unacceptable conditions. As a result, negotiations between Tunisia's Justice Ministry and Human Rights Watch over the terms of the visits have stagnated.

"Tunisia's promise to open its prisons to independent human rights organizations is significant, but in the end will be meaningless if Tunisia will not allow outsiders to see and report on what is really happening inside," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Among the conditions Tunisia is insisting on is that Human Rights Watch be allowed to speak only to a sample of prisoners who respond to a general invitation to be interviewed. Human Rights Watch accepts "sampling" as one method of selecting prisoners to interview, but also insists on the right to request visits with specific prisoners it selects on the basis of its ongoing, external monitoring of prison conditions.

Human Rights Watch said in its letter that only a mixed methodology - using both "sampling" and lists of names - "would ensure that the delegation can access a broad range of prisoners ... investigate cases where there have been allegations of abuse, and reach specific prisoners whom the administration may have transferred before the delegation's arrival."

Tunisian authorities first promised Human Rights Watch access to its prisons on April 19, 2005, but then put off providing that access on the grounds that it would first allow the International Committee of the Red Cross into the prisons. The ICRC has been visiting Tunisian prisons since 2005 but, unlike Human Rights Watch, reports its findings privately to the government rather than publishing them. No independent human rights organization that makes its findings public has been allowed to set foot in Tunisian prisons since 1991, when the Tunisian League for Human Rights visited two facilities.

"Justice Ministry officials have repeatedly told us that they have nothing to hide in the prisons," said Whitson. "It is time they agree to a methodology for visits that reflects that statement, so that Human Rights Watch's visits can get under way."

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