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Pressures on Organizations and Journalists Reporting on Prison Conditions

While the government granted the Higher Committee access to prisons and prisoners in order to conduct its inquiries, it denied access to independent human rights organizations access to prisons and also subjected these groups and their leaders to various restrictions and forms of harassment.   Until very recently, it had refused to accept the application for legal recognition of the Tunis-based International Association of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Association Internationale pour le soutien des prisonniers politiques, AISPP), first submitted in November 2002.  Finally, on March 29, 2004, authorities accepted the AISPP’s application for legal recognition, seventeen months after it was first submitted.  According to the Law on Associations, the minister of interior has ninety days from the date of accepting the application to reject it, in which case he must state his reasons. In the absence of such a rejection, the AISPP can begin to operate legally as soon as the Journal Officiel de la République Tunisienne publishes a notice of its formation. 

The government continued to refuse legal recognition to another organization active on prisoner rights, the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie, CNLT).21 

The AISPP and CNLT continued their work even without legal status, despite the risks and obstacles this posed. The Law on Associations provides for prison terms and a fine for persons who organize or conduct activities on behalf of an “unrecognized” organization.  On several occasions, members of the AISPP and the CNLT have been assaulted in public places by men in plainclothes believed to be police.22 On Saturday, January 3, 2004, police in Tunis blocked efforts by the AISPP to hold a congress. AISPP president and ex-political prisoner Mohamed Nouri continues to be prevented from traveling abroad on the grounds that he is subject to a criminal investigation for disseminating false information.  Nouri was turned back at Tunis-Carthage airport on December 9, 2003, and February 10, 2004, when attempting to participate in human rights meetings in Europe. Human rights defenders often find that they have been placed under judicial investigation on dubious charges; the case is neither tried nor dismissed but becomes the pretext for banning their foreign travel.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights, which monitors prison conditions along with other issues, continues to face legal pressures.   In 2001, a Tunisian court nullified the recent internal elections that had given the LTDH an independent and outspoken leadership.  The court’s ruling against the LTDH came in response to a state-encouraged lawsuit filed by four dissident members.  An appeals court upheld the decision but said the current leadership could remain in office solely for the purpose of organizing new elections. The LTDH’s leadership rejected the ruling as political in nature and has continued its activism despite the court order limiting its scope of operations.23

That court order hangs over the League as it defiantly pursues its work. The order was also invoked by Minister Tekkari at his April 20 press conference to justify excluding the LTDH from possible prison visits. An organization must first of all be functioning legally before applying for access, he said.24

An earlier attempt at forming an independent organization focused on political prisoners, the National Committee for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience, resulted in the arrest of co-founder Salah Hamzaoui on charges of defamation, disseminating false information liable to disturb the public order, and forming an organization without following the procedures laid out by the Law on Associations. Hamzaoui spent ten days in detention in February 1993 for his role in forming the committee.

In another clampdown on efforts to expose prison conditions, Hédi Yahmed, the author of a 2002 investigative article, was summoned for questioning by state prosecutors and pressured to quit the journal he worked for.  The exposé of conditions in the 9th of April  Prison in Tunis, published in Haqa’iq/Réalités weekly, was uncharacteristically critical for a Tunisian publication.25  For example, it pointed out that while the 2001 prison law guaranteed each inmate an individual bed (Article 15), a hierarchy prevailed among prisoners in group cells by which the new arrivals first slept on the floor, then under a bed where they were jostled less, then in a shared bed, before eventually getting a bed of their own.

Yahmed’s article appeared in the issue dated December 12, 2002. On December 14, the prosecutor’s office summoned Yahmed and Haqa’iq/Réalités’s general manager for questioning on the article.  According to Yahmed, the editors then informed him that he could no longer work for the magazine.26   Haqa’iq/Réalités disputed Yahmed’s version, claiming he quit voluntarily, ignoring pleas from his colleagues to remain.27 Curiously, the editor’s note providing the magazine’s version of the affair is on its website but Yahmed’s investigative article, which triggered the controversy, is not.

[21] The CNLT issued a report on prison conditions, Rapport sur la situation dans les prisons en Tunisie, October 20, 1999 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[22] See Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Lawyers and Associations under Siege in Tunisia,” March 17, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[23]  See Human Rights Watch, “A Lawsuit against the League : An Assault on All Human Rights Activists,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 13, no. 3, April 2001 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[24] « Pomme de discorde entre le ministère et le Bâtonnat, » Le Temps, April 21, 2004.

[25] Hedi Yahmed “Hal yejib islah es-sujoun fi Tunis?” [“Do Tunisia’s Prisons Need to Be Reformed?”] Haqa’iq/Réalités, December 12, 2002, No. 885, pp. 10-13.

[26] “The Article That Forced Hedi Yahmed To Flee His Country,” RAP21 Newsletter, no. 16, January 5, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[27] “’L’affaire Hédi Yahmed’ Les points sur les ‘i’,» Haqa’iq/Réalités January 9, 2003, No. 888 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

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