(Paris) - Human Rights Watch and several other organizations issued the following statement today after the Tunisian parliament passed a measure on June 15, 2010, that would subject human rights defenders to criminal penalties for contacting foreign organizations and institutions:

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemn the Tunisian Parliament's adoption on  June 15 of a bill designed to directly criminalize the efforts of Tunisian human rights defenders to promote awareness of the situation in Tunisia.

This law will add the following category of persons to those who can be prosecuted under article 61b of the criminal code: "persons who establish, directly or indirectly, contact with officials of a foreign state, institution or foreign organization with the aim of inciting them to harm Tunisia's vital interests and its economic security." Persons convicted under this article will face prison terms ranging from 5 to 25 years (article 62 of the criminal code, on internal security). The adoption of this amendment will enable the authorities to prosecute and imprison human rights defenders who are supported by foreign and multilateral organizations.

In his reply to statements made by parliamentarians, Justice and Human Rights Minister Lazhar Bououni said that "harming Tunisia's vital interests" included "inciting foreign parties not to grant loans to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage Tunisia's efforts to obtain advanced partner status with the European Union." [1] The approval of this provision comes just one month after a meeting on May 11 of the Council of Association between the EU and Tunisia, and at a time when Tunisia has begun negotiations to obtain advanced partner status.

"This repressive decision is a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and is unquestionably designed to criminalize the act of bringing the human rights situation in Tunisia to the attention of international organizations," FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen said.

"This constitutes yet another blow to Tunisian civil society, which aim is to keep dissidents from being heard on the international stage," OMCT Secretary-General Eric Sottas added.

"This provision completes the Tunisian government's repressive arsenal against those  figures who, internationally, dare to challenge the regime's policies. It opens the door to all kinds of abuses. The EU must not grant Tunisia advanced partner status as  long as its government tries to gag all dissidents, as long as it makes systematic use of harassment, intimidation and censorship and as long as the criminal code is used to punish  all dissenting views," RWB Secretary-General François Julliard said.

"Human rights defenders are directly targeted by the new law," said EMHRN President Kamel Jendoubi. "Even before its adoption, articles published in newspapers such as Al-Hadath, Kol an-nass, As-Sarih, As-Sabah, La Presse and Ach-Chourouk  were branding certain Tunisian activists[2] as ‘traitors,' ‘agents' and ‘mercenaries' who ‘should be brought to trial'[3] for being in contact with the EU. But the law also aims to silence Tunisians who would speak critically to the international community."

These attacks have intensified in recent weeks, with activists being openly held responsible for any "failure in the negotiations for advanced partner status with the EU"[4]. In addition, when Khémaïs Chammari arrived at Tunis International Airport from Paris on 15 June, he was subjected to an abusive and humiliating customs inspection that lasted 65 minutes and led to the confiscation of one of his books.

"After trying to suppress all those who express independent views inside Tunisia, the authorities want to use this measure to extend their control to the international arena, where they would control activists and prevent denunciation of the violations being committed on a daily basis in Tunisia," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.

The Observatory, EMHRN, RWB, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch fear that the adoption of this law will result in an increase in harassment of human rights activists in Tunisia and will allow the authorities to bring arbitrary prosecutions against activists and all those who urge the international community to do what is necessary to encourage an improvement in the human rights situation in Tunisia.

Our organizations hereby call upon the Tunisian authorities to repeal this law without delay, inasmuch as its provisions are clearly contrary to the spirit and letter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tunisia ratified on  March 23, 1976; and to comply with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on  December 9, 1998 and with the regional and international instruments on human rights ratified by Tunisia.

Our organizations also call upon the EU institutions to examine any upgrading of EU relations with Tunisia by the yardstick of significant and measurable progress in respect for international human rights standards and to immediately implement the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.

[1] See Agence Tunis Afrique Presse article of June 15, 2010 and La Presse de Tunisie article of June 16, 2010.

[2] Kamel Jendoubi, EMHRN President and member of the OMCT's executive council, Sihem Bensedrine, spokesperson of the National Council for Freedoms in Tunisia (CNLT), Khémaïs Chammari, member of the board of the Euro-Mediterranean Support Foundation for Human Rights Defenders (FEMDH) and former FIDH Vice-President, and Omar Mestiri, editor of the newspaper Kalima.

[3] See Al-Hadath articles of May 19 and 26, 2010.

[4] See La Presse article of May 31, 2010.