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Vigorous police repression has extended to a broad range of human rights activity in recent months. It has included beatings and other forms of physical and verbal aggression carried out by men in plainclothes.

    · The Support Committee for Hamma Hammami, a political activist in hiding, tried to hold a meeting on January 12, 2001 at the Tunis home of its president, Salah Hamzaoui. Tens of police were deployed on the street and turned back all comers wishing to reach Hamzaoui's home.

    · On December 15, members of the National Committee to Defend Moncef Marzouki, in a pre-announced action, attempted to deliver a petition to the minister of public health at the ministry's headquarters in Tunis. The more than 500 signers of the petition called for rescinding the dismissal of Marzouki as a professor of medicine, a move taken in apparent reprisal for his human rights activities. Police blocked the entrance to the ministry, surrounded the car carrying committee coordinator Mohamed Bechri and CNLT members Sihem Ben Sedrine and Omar Mestiri,37 and ordered them to depart immediately. They pushed Bechri and Ben Sedrine back into the car. When Mestiri resisted, the police beat him on his head and body, continuing to do so after he was pushed to the ground. They finally put him in a police car, drove him fifty kilometers outside the capital and then released him.

Police have shown particular zeal in their dealings with the CNLT, which has continued to hold meetings and issue communiqués despite the government's denial of its legal status. Nearly all of the most visible members of the CNLT have been deprived of their passports at one time or another since its founding. As this report went to press, those unable to travel include Marzouki, Hosni, Sadri Khiari, Ali Ben Salem, Ali Ben Romdhane, Mohamed Ali Bedoui and Jalal Zoghlami.

The state's response to the CNLT's activism has included prosecutions and increasingly violent police actions:

    · Moncef Marzouki, the CNLT's spokesperson until February 2001, was convicted on December 30, 2000 of involvement in an "unauthorized" association (i.e., the CNLT)38 and spreading "false" information capable of disturbing "the public order," in connection with public statements he made on human rights and the need for government transparency. He has not appealed his one-year prison sentence, explaining in a statement prepared for the court that the "refusal to participate in such judicial games is the only thing that will contribute to putting an end to them and provide the minimum guarantees of a fair trial for political defendants in the future."39 Marzouki is provisionally free pending the appeal sought by the prosecutor over the "leniency" of the sentence. He has been subjected to intensive harassment and persecution, including the dismissal from his post as a professor of medicine in the public sector, cutoff of his phone service, deprivation of his passport for most of the past five years and police surveillance of his residence, where officers have recently demanded identification from persons paying him a visit. Marzouki was recently issued a new passport but when he tried to use it for the first time on March 10, police turned him back at the airport.

    · Néjib Hosni, a co-founder of the CNLT and one of Tunisia's most outspoken human rights lawyers, was returned to prison in December 2000 to serve the remaining five and-a-half years of an eight-year sentence on trumped-up charges of fraud. Hosni, who represented many Islamist clients facing political charges at a time when few lawyers were willing to do so, was given the eight-year sentence in January 1996 but released conditionally in December 1996 after sustained international pressure. He had by that time served two and-a-half years, including eighteen months of pretrial detention. Hosni's 1996 sentence included a five-year ban on practicing law.40 Since his release he was also arbitrarily deprived of his passport and telephone service. In May 2000, the national Bar Council, which considers itself the sole body empowered by the law to determine who may practice law,41 formally stated that Hosni was a member in good standing of the bar. Judicial authorities contested this, insisting that the ban against Hosni practicing law remained in effect. After Hosni made oral arguments in courtrooms in 2000, he was twice tried and convicted, in December 2000 and January 2001, of failure to obey a judicial order (Article 315 of the Penal Code), and given the maximum punishment of fifteen days in prison for each offense. While Hosni was serving the first of these two sentences, the Ministry of Interior reinstated the remainder of his 1996 eight-year prison term on the grounds that he had committed a new offense while on conditional release. Hosni is presently in Le Kef prison, near his family's home.42 The recent convictions appear to have been a mere pretext to cancel Hosni's conditional release and re-imprison him for a long period. This harsh measure appears to be a punishment for Hosni's refusal to abandon his outspoken human rights activities both as a defense lawyer and activist.

    · Police maintain heavy surveillance of the CNLT's makeshift office in an apartment in downtown Tunis, and have frequently turned away persons attempting to reach it. Persons refused access include both CNLT members and supporters, as well as victims and relatives seeking to inform the CNLT of human rights abuses. The latter have included, on separate occasions, former political prisoners Lassad Jouhri and Taoufik Chaieb. On March 1, plainclothes police turned back all persons attempting to reach a CNLT meeting and reception at the Tunis office of Maison Aloès, a publishing house founded by the CNLT's new spokesperson, Sihem Ben Sedrine. They beat and taunted several persons, including Moncef Marzouki and CNLT members Khédija Chérif, Ali Ben Salem, and Abdelkader Ben Khémis. According to a CNLT communiqué issued the following day, the police called the CNLT members "traitors" and "foreign agents." Chérif recounted in a written statement dated March 5 what she experienced as she and Héla Abdeljaoued, who presided over the October 2000 LTDH general assembly, drove to the reception:

When we turned onto the street [where the building is located] a group of plainclothes police officers told us to turn around. We protested that it was illegal to turn us back in this fashion and they showered us with insults, calling us "traitors to the country," etc. We got back in the car...and I began to turn it around. That was when ten or so police pounced on me like mad dogs, shouting at me to move on. Through the open window, several hands started hitting me on my neck, head, and chest.... Shocked, I couldn't move and the car stalled, leaving me to the fury of these thugs who continued to beat me brutally on the head and back, violently kicking the car...all this with a torrent of obscene insults and vulgarities that are used for women, in the presence of the police commander of the Médina district who threatened me with even worse abuse.... Collecting my wits, I started the car and drove away.

Chérif was once again physically assaulted on March 10 by men in plainclothes. Leaving the courthouse where LTDH president had appeared before the investigating judge, the men set upon Chérif and attempted to grab a folder from her hand. When she resisted, one of the men pushed her to the ground and seized the folder, according to a CNLT communiqué issued the same day. The folder contained materials relating to the formal complaint she filed in court concerning the assault against her committed on March 1, including photos of police swarming around her car that were taken from an apartment window above.43

In response to the assaults on Chérif, the new human rights minister, Slaheddine Maâoui stated in an interview published in le Monde on April 6, 2001:

We are completely opposed to any form of harassment against human rights activists. What happened with Khédija Chérif is intolerable. How can we accept that this intellectual member of civil society is roughly mistreated as she was? It was an aberration and it has been punished. It was the act of a police agent who was subsequently suspended and who will be brought before a disciplinary board. President Ben Ali is indignant about this case. He told me, "I made respect for women's rights one of the credos of my politics. I cannot tolerate women being roughly mistreated, especially a respectable scholar."

The minister's remarks are welcome. But if, as he states, a police agent has indeed been disciplined, Chérif as the victim was neither informed of this action taking place nor asked to testify. Nor has she received a response to the formal complaint she filed with the prosecutor's office about the assault.

36 For a systematic treatment of this subject, see Amnesty International, "Tunisia: Human Rights Defenders in the Line of Fire."

37 Mestiri, then secretary-general of the CNLT, was detained in May 1999 and then questioned by an investigating judge on charges of maintaining an illegal organization, defaming "the public order," dissemination of "false" news capable of disturbing the public order, and other charges. He has not yet been brought to trial.

38 Article 30 of the Law on Associations provides prison terms of one to five years, plus a fine, for this offense.

39 For an account of his trial, see the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, the Kurdish Human Rights Project, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint program of the FIDH and the OMCT), the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, and the Union Internationale des Avocats, "Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Unfair Trials In Tunisia: A Report of the Trials of Dr Moncef Marzouki, Attorney Nejib Hosni and the Tunisian League For Human Rights," 2001.

40 The Penal Code in Article 5 provides as a complementary sentence an interdiction on practicing certain professions, including the law.

41 Article 3 of the Law Regulating the Practice of Law states, "Persons who may practice law are those whose names are registered in the directory of lawyers." Article 62 states that it is the National Bar Council that "rules on applications for registration in the directory of lawyers." La loi 89-97 du 7 septembre 1990, portant organisation de la profession d'avocat, reprinted in Recueil des textes relatifs à la profession d'avocat (Tunis : Imprimerie Officielle de la République Tunisienne, 2000).

42 For a careful study of the 1996 criminal case against Hosni, see Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "Nejib Hosni: A Tunisian Lawyer Singled Out for Exemplary Punishment for Defending Human Rights and Upholding the Rule of Law," April 1996. For an update on his situation, see Avocats sans frontières/Belgium, "La situation des défenseurs des droits de l'homme et des avocats en Tunisie -- Le cas de Me. Néjib Hosni", 2001, and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network et al., "Freedom Of Expression, Freedom of Association and Unfair Trials In Tunisia."

43 Some of those photos were published in the third issue of the online magazine Kalima, edited by CNLT spokesperson Sihem Ben Sedrine. Available: [April 12, 2001]. Authorities have interfered with Ben Sedrine's efforts to publish a printed copy of the magazine: they have failed to issue a receipt for the formal notice she submitted in November 1999 to inform them of the new publication. Without that receipt, printing houses in Tunisia are unwilling to print a periodical. See also Ludovic Blecher, "Kalima, la `parole' en ligne des contestaires tunisiens," Libération (Paris), April 14-15, 2001.

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