Tunisia enjoyed a brief political thaw, during which human rights gatherings
took place without police interference and the new human rights minister
pledged greater tolerance.

This past spring, Tunisia enjoyed a brief political thaw, during which human rights gatherings took place without police interference and the new human rights minister pledged greater tolerance. But last week's detention of opposition leader Mohamed Mouada, the resumption of a trial for human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and the imposition of a travel ban against activist Sadri Khiari, have effectively ended that thaw.

"The pressure on those who speak out may ease from time to time," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "But the events of the past week show that the basic intolerance of dissent in Tunisia has not changed."

The Tunisian police did not interfere during spring meetings organized by the Tunisian Human Rights League and the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT). From November 2000 through March 2001, security forces had aggressively blocked many such meetings, turning away guests arriving at meeting sites and even closing off public streets to impede access.

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde of April 5, the new human rights minister Slaheddine Ma?ui said, "We absolutely oppose all forms of harassment of human rights activists." But Ma?ui has been largely silent since then, and has done little to dispel the impression that his remarks to Le Monde were intended for foreign consumption at a time of harsh scrutiny of Tunisia's rights practices.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Tunisia to:

? Immediately and unconditionally release from prison Mohamed Mouada, who has once again been imprisoned solely because of his criticism of government policies;

? Restore the right to travel of Sadri Khiari, Moncef Marzouki, and all other Tunisians who have been deprived of passports or prevented from traveling in reprisal for their human rights activities or their real or imputed political views;

? Cease all measures of harassment against Moncef Marzouki, who has been unjustly convicted and sentenced merely for exercising his right to freedom of expression; and restore him to the professional post from which he was arbitrarily dismissed; and

? Ensure that all human rights organizations in Tunisia, including the Tunisian Human Rights League and the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia, are free to carry out their mission of monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions.

Background:

On June 19, opposition figure Mohamed Mouada was arrested at his home in Tunis after issuing joint statements with exiled Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi and making remarks to foreign-based media critical of the state of public liberties in Tunisia. Mouada, a former president of the Mouvement des D?ocrates Socialistes, a legal opposition party, publicly opposed a possible fourth term for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which would require a constitutional amendment before the 2004 elections.

According to a statement from the Ministry of Interior issued on the day of the arrest, Mouada had violated the terms of his conditional release from prison in December 1996. Earlier that year he had been given an eleven-year sentence on trumped-up charges of serving a foreign power, namely Libya. He is now obliged to serve out that sentence.

The same day, Sadri Khiari was prevented from leaving the country on the pretext that he was facing two court cases. Police at Tunis-Carthage airport searched his baggage and confiscated a computer diskette. They furnished no details of the charges against him. Khiari, a painter, is a founding member of the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a human rights organization that the government has refused to recognize. Khiari and three other Tunisians had received their passports a few days earlier after going on hunger strike to protest their arbitrary denial.

On June 23, the Tunis Court of Appeals began hearing an appeal against the "leniency" of the one-year prison sentence imposed on Moncef Marzouki. A verdict is expected July 7. One of Tunisia's best-known human rights activists, Marzouki was convicted December 30 of involvement in an "unauthorized" association -namely the CNLT - and spreading "false" information capable of disturbing "the public order," in connection with statements he made on human rights and the need for government transparency. When Marzouki refused to appeal his conviction and sentence, citing the political nature of the trial, the prosecution appealed the sentence. Marzouki remained at liberty but unable to leave the country. Until now, no date had been set for the appeal. In July 2000, in apparent reprisal for his human rights work, Marzouki was dismissed from his post as a professor of medicine at a public university.

On June 21, the Tunis Court of Appeals affirmed the lower-court decision nullifying the results of the last internal elections of the Tunisian Human Rights League. That vote, held in October, gave the League a dynamic new steering committee that promptly set about criticizing human rights abuses in an assertive manner. When four unsuccessful candidates in those elections filed a suit contending that the vote had been tainted by irregularities, a court issued an emergency injunction evicting the League's new steering committee from League headquarters and freezing its activities.

On February 12, the first court to hear the case ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the ouster of the new steering committee and a new election to be organized by the League's previous steering committee.

The seemingly paradoxical ruling by the Appeals court this week upheld the voiding of the election of the steering committee while apparently tasking the same, supposedly illegitimate, committee with organizing new elections within a year. It also terminated the administration of the League's offices by a court-appointed administrator, which would in theory enable the steering committee to use the headquarters again.

Some observers saw the Appeals decision as a face-saving compromise. However, it keeps open the possibility of future legal actions against the steering committee should it continue to act in the name of the League, as its leadership has vowed to do.