(New York) - Tunisian authorities should end the arbitrary banishment to a remote village of the political activist and journalist Abdallah Zouari, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent today to Minister of Justice Béchir Tekkari and Minister of Interior Rafeek Belhaj. Initially imposed as part of a judicial sentence, Zouari's internal exile was arbitrarily extended on June 5, 2007 for 26 months. Given that there appears to have been no legal basis for this renewal of the restrictions on Zouari's movements, there are concerns that they might be extended again.
"Abdallah Zouari had an unfair trial, then spent 11 years in prison and so far has spent seven more in internal exile," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Zouari seems to be a walking refutation of the idea that the rule of law prevails in Tunisia when it comes to dissidents."
Zouari was convicted in 1992 by a Tunisian military court in a mass trial of leaders and members of the Islamist Nahdha movement on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. He was sentenced to prison and an additional "complementary sentence" of five years of post-release "administrative control."
Although courts commonly impose such complementary sentences, its application in Zouari's case was uniquely harsh. Most of these sentences confine the released prisoner to his habitual town of residence. But authorities banished Zouari upon his release in June 2002 to the Zarzis area in the southern governorate of Medenine, 500 kilometers from his and his family's place of residence in greater Tunis.
On June 5, 2007, the day that Zouari's five-year administrative control was to end, a local police official summoned him to announce that authorities were extending his confinement to the Zarzis area by 26 months. It was not clear who made that decision, and no court, police, or state official has given Zouari this order in writing or explained its legal basis.
Human Rights Watch's letter asked Tunisian authorities to clarify the legal basis for extending Zouari's administrative control. "Absent such a basis in Tunisian law, we can conclude that the extension is an arbitrary restriction on Zouari's rights, for which he is entitled to seek compensation," the letter said.
Human Rights Watch considers the 1992 mass trials before military courts of Zouari and other leaders and members of the Islamist Nahdha movement to have been tainted by confessions obtained by torture and other violations of the right to a fair trial.