(New York) - Tunisian authorities should quash the convictions on the journalists Taoufik Ben Brik and Zouhair Makhlouf after unfair trials and immediately set them free, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also investigate an attack on another journalist, Slim Boukhdir, and halt the harassment of journalists, Human Rights Watch said.

Since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali won re-election for a fifth consecutive term on October 25, 2009, the authorities have stepped up a campaign against journalists who criticize the government. On the eve of the election, which official results say Ben Ali won with 89.62 percent of the vote, Ben Ali vowed to prosecute all those who tarnished Tunisia's image or who asserted without proof that the elections were fraudulent.

"Ben Ali is on a vengeful campaign to punish the few journalists and human rights activists who dared to question his record during the election," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "During the campaign, he vowed his administration would respect human rights, but that apparently was an empty promise."

Since the election, security services have also harassed several human rights activists with heightened surveillance, brief detentions and threats, and prevented them from moving about freely. These include Abdelkarim Harouni of the Liberty and Equity organization, as well as Sihem Ben Sedrine, who is both spokesperson for the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a human rights organization the government has refused to recognize, and editor of the online magazine and radio station Kalima. Plainclothes police have prevented Ben Sedrine from moving about in public more than once, barring her from a workshop on October 20 on media coverage of the election, as well as from visiting Boukhdir, and attending Ben Brik's trial.

A Set-Up and Then an Unfair Trial

A Tunis court of first instance sentenced Ben Brik on November 26 to six months in prison after a three-hour-long trial, stemming from an apparent set-up.  He has been in custody since October 29, when he appeared at a Tunis police station to answer a summons accusing him of assaulting a female motorist. He was convicted of assault, defamation, destroying the property of others, and violating public morality.

The charges stem from an incident while Ben Brik was waiting for his daughter outside her school on the afternoon of October 22. He was accused of first hitting a woman's car and then assaulting her. Ben Brik denied any wrongdoing and published statements saying the episode was a set-up by the police to frame him.

Irregularities in his trial compromised his right to a fair and public hearing.  Although a number of foreign observers were present, police turned away many human rights activists and members of his family.

Space in the courtroom was clearly not the issue since security services turned back Ben Sidrine and her husband Omar Mestiri - also with Kalima and in the CNLT - well before they reached the courthouse in suburban La Marsa. The security services refused entry to Tunisia at Tunis-Carthage airport to Mohammad Hassani Idrissi and Hocine Zehouane, human rights lawyers from Morocco and Algeria respectively, who had arrived on November 18 to attend the trial.

Authorities limited Ben Brik's access to legal counsel, preventing two of his lawyers, Nejib Chebbi and Ayachi Hammami, from visiting him in prison on November 2 despite court-issued permits, although they were allowed access on other occasions. Without explanation, the court rejected the lawyers' request to postpone the trial to allow more time to prepare the defense.

The case against Ben Brik rested on a statement that the police attributed to him but that he says is false and bears a forged signature. The court did not accept defense requests to call witnesses and the plaintiff to testify so her evidence could be challenged. None of Ben Brik's three principal lawyers, Mohammad Abbo, Radhia Nasraoui, and Ayyashi Hamami, was allowed to present the defense's case fully in court; the judge cut each off after a brief statement. After a dispute with the defense team over procedural issues, the judge suspended the trial. He never resumed the trial, but then announced his verdict the following week.

Shortly after Ben Brik's conviction, authorities transferred him to Siliana prison, 130 kilometers from his family's home in Tunis. He had petitioned for conditional release on November 10 on medical grounds; he suffers from a rare condition called Cushing's syndrome. The request was refused, and on November 12, the Justice Ministry issued a statement asserting that he was receiving the required care in prison. Since his transfer to Siliana prison, none of Ben Brik's lawyers have been allowed to visit him, despite the fact that he is filing an appeal. On December 7, three of his lawyers protested in front of the court of appeals in Tunis because they had been denied permits to visit their client. They were granted permits the next day, but were still denied entry.

Ben Brik is a frequent critic of the Tunisian government, most recently publishing a series of articles in the French press during the election campaign mocking President Ben Ali, which Chebbi, the lawyer, contends is the real reason behind Ben Brik's arrest. One of these articles, published on October 21 in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, was a satirical mock interview in which "Ben Ali" speaks about his nepotism, corruption, and repression of opponents.


A History of Frame-Ups

The Tunisian government has a history of bringing claims against journalists and human rights activists of sexual assault, harassment, and indecency. In 1993, pornographic photographs that purported to depict Ben Sedrine began circulating in Tunis, an apparent effort to smear her reputation and discourage her from continuing her human rights work.

In April 2005, a court sentenced a lawyer and human rights activist, Mohammad Abbou, to two years in prison on trumped-up charges of assaulting a woman lawyer on the same day it convicted him in a separate trial of writing an article that "insulted the judiciary" and "was likely to disturb the public order."

In September, police detained the human rights activist Abdallah Zouari near Zarzis and, he says, threatened to release a film they claimed would show him engaging in sexual activity, if he did not stop his activism.

"Trying to frame dissidents and human rights activists as morally dissolute or violent is merely a ploy by this government to mask its repression," Whitson said.

Other Recent Episodes

Another journalist, Zouhair Makhlouf, was sentenced December 1 to three months in prison and fined 6,000 Tunisian dinars (US $4,600) after an unfair trial. The court convicted Makhlouf of "harming a third party by way of a public telecommunications network," under Article 86 of the Telecommunications Law.

Makhlouf contributes to the website of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), a legal opposition party that had boycotted the elections. Makhlouf had reported on various human rights issues for Assabilonline.net, such as the plight of political prisoners and their families.

Shortly before his arrest, Makhlouf had prepared and disseminated a short video online that reported on an area of Nabeul where the local pottery industry had contributed to troubling environmental and health conditions. One of the people he interviewed, a potter named Mourad Latheeb, filed a complaint accusing Makhlouf of filming him without his consent, although witnesses to the filming say that Latheeb had granted permission to be filmed for the interview, which lasted over ten minutes.

Makhlouf, responding to a summons, went to the Ma'amoura police station on October 20, where he was arrested.

Makhlouf, who suffers from diabetes, began a hunger strike October 21 to protest his arrest. That day, the administration at Mornaguia prison refused to allow Makhlouf's laywer, Fawzi Ben Jaballah, to visit him. Security agents also prevented another lawyer, Saifeddine Makhlouf, from visiting him on November 23.

Throughout Makhlouf's trial, police at the court of first instance of Grombalia kept most human rights activists and trial observers out of the courtroom. At the first of two hearings, on November 3, Ben Sedrine was among those denied access. At the second hearing, held on November 24, police surrounded the court and refused entry to nearly all human rights activists and members of civil society organizations. Martin Pradel, a lawyer designated to attend by The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), was among the few permitted entry. (Pradel had also been designated an observer by the Paris Bar and International Bar Association.)

The court did not grant any of the requests by the defense for witnesses to testify, and the judge never looked at the film of the interview. The court relied instead on the plaintiff's complaint without requiring him to testify in court. During the November 24 hearing, the judge interrupted one of Makhlouf's lawyers, Radhia Nasraoui, in the middle of her pleading for acquittal and did not allow her to conclude.

Boukhdir, an independent journalist, faced police harassment in the post-election period. He had served time in prison in 2007 and 2008, under conviction of violating public morality and aggression against a public employee, following a trial where he was not able to call defense witnesses. On October 28 Boukhdir was assaulted in front of his house in Bardo by five men, one of whom Boukhdir said he knew to be a police officer.

Boukhdir said the men covered his eyes, beat, and insulted him, and forced him into a car, which they drove to Belvedere Park in northern Tunis where more men were waiting. The men threw him out of the car and proceeded to punch, kick, and beat him with a stick for around 30 minutes. During the assault, the men continued to insult Boukhdir, accusing him of harassing women. Boukhdir said he believes the real reason was his interview with the BBC that had aired two hours earlier, in which he criticized the repression of journalists during the election campaign. Before driving away, his assailants confiscated at knifepoint his clothes, money, keys, mobile phone, and his identification papers. Boukhdir was treated at a hospital for a broken nose, an eye injury, and multiple bruises on his face and chest.

Upon his return home, he found a number of plainclothes police outside, who remained there for 11 days. They harassed visitors who tried to see him, asking them intrusive questions in a threatening manner.

On the morning of November 8, police intensified their presence around Boukhdir's house and neighborhood, effectively allowing no one to leave or enter. Police prevented Ben Sedrine, Abderra'ouf Ayadi, another activist, and Mestiri from visiting him that day.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, both ratified by Tunisia, guarantee freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of movement. Article 14 of the ICCPR includes, within the right to a fair trial, the rights to have "adequate time and facilities" for preparation of defense, and the right of the defendant to examine, or have examined witnesses against him.