US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should urge the Tunisian government to end its harassment and imprisonment of human rights activists when she visits the country on Saturday, September 6, Human Rights Watch said today. She is scheduled to meet with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has held office since 1987.
Intolerant of dissent, Tunisian authorities subject local human rights organizations to systematic harassment, refusing to grant some of them legal recognition, preventing them from holding meetings, and harassing activists with intimidating police surveillance, arbitrary travel bans, and arrest and imprisonment on false charges.
“The Tunisian government has shown little respect for the values of liberty and freedom,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than protecting the rights of its citizens, as Secretary Rice has previously urged, it has crushed their freedom to associate and express their views as they wish.”
Tunisian authorities have detained human rights activists as recently as last week. On August 28, authorities arrested Tarek Soussi of the International Association in Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP) in the city of Bizerte, after he denounced on Al Jazeera television the August 22-23 detention by police of seven young men in Bizerte.
On September 3, Soussi appeared before an investigative judge on charges of spreading, “in bad faith,” “false information ... likely to disturb the public order” and remains in jail pending his trial. He faces a sentence of up to three years in prison if convicted, under the Press Code’s Article 49.
The September 3 court hearing did not make clear the basis for the “false information” charge. But Soussi’s lawyer, Anouar Kousri, said it may be due to Soussi’s having characterized the arrests as “abductions;” he alleged on Al Jazeera that the police had detained the men without the required arrest warrants and had not disclosed their whereabouts to the families. On August 28, the authorities brought the seven men before an investigative judge in Tunis.
“Even if Soussi’s declaration were to turn out to be a mischaracterization, sending him to prison is a grossly excessive and inappropriate response,” Whitson said. “This is a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate those who do vital work reporting on human rights abuses in Tunisia.”
The United States has a tradition of speaking relatively openly about the absence of political and civil liberties in Tunisia, urging its close ally to match its economic progress with progress in the realm of human rights.
After meeting with President Ben Ali in December 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke publicly about the need for “for more political pluralism and openness and a standard of openness that deals with journalists being able to do their work.” In 2005, speaking in the region, Secretary Rice said: “When we talk about democracy, we are referring to governments that protect certain basic rights for all their citizens – among these, the right to speak freely. The right to associate .... And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police. Securing these rights is the hope of every citizen, and the duty of every government.”
“On her first official visit to the country, Rice should make clear that if Tunisia’s record on civil liberties were to equal its economic performance, people like Tarek Soussi would be free to monitor human rights instead of sitting in a jail cell for speaking on television,” Whitson said.