Hundreds of prisoners of conscience, including human rights defenders and people suspected of supporting unauthorized political opposition groups, were arrested. Up to 2,000 political prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience, arrested in previous years remained imprisoned. Political trials fell short of international standards for fair trial. Torture and ill-treatment remained widespread, especially during garde à vue (incommunicado) detention, often in the Ministry of the Interior. Beatings and ill-treatment were increasingly reported in prisons. Non-violent political opponents and critics of the government of President Zine el ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali continued to be detained. Human rights defenders were increasingly targeted and further restrictions were imposed on the activities of local and international human rights organizations. In May, the President of the Fédération internationale des droits de l'homme (FIDH), International Federation of Human Rights, was expelled from Tunisia. Also in May, the European Parliament passed its first resolution expressing concern at the human rights situation in Tunisia. In an unprecedented crack-down, several human rights defenders were detained and interrogated about their activities in Tunisia and abroad, and about their contacts with international human rights organizations. Khemais Chammari, member of parliament and Vice-President of the main legal opposition party, the Mouvement des démocrates socialistes (MDS), Movement of Socialist Democrats, also former Vice-President of the FIDH and former Secretary General of the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'homme (LTDH), Tunisian League for Human Rights, was arrested in May. He was tried in July and sentenced to five years' imprisonment on charges of disclosing state secrets. He was accused of sending a Belgian lawyer information relating to the judicial investigation into the case of the MDS President, Mohamed Mou‘adda, who was arrested in 1995 and sentenced in February 1996 to 11 years' imprisonment on charges including sharing intelligence with a foreign power (see Amnesty International Report 1996). Khemais Chammari and Mohamed Mou‘adda were released by presidential decision in December. Five other prisoners of conscience benefited from the same measure and were released during the year. A Tunisian staff member of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International was arrested in August, when he went to Tunisia on holiday. He was held for a week at the Ministry of the Interior and questioned about his work for the organization. In October, Salah Zeghidi, Vice-President of the LTDH, was arrested on his return from Paris, France, where he and representatives of other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the FIDH, had participated in a public meeting on the human rights situation in Tunisia. He was interrogated about the meeting and was released the following day. Hundreds more prisoners of conscience were detained on suspicion of supporting unauthorized political groups. Many were released after short-term detention and interrogation, but scores were sentenced to prison terms, including former prisoners who had already served prison sentences for similar charges. Most of them were accused of supporting the unauthorized Islamist group al-Nahda, and others of supporting the Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens (PCOT), Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, or the Union de la jeunesse communiste, Union of Communist Youth. Scores of wives and relatives of imprisoned and exiled supporters of al-Nahda were detained on suspicion of having received financial assistance or given such assistance to families of prisoners. Some were arrested in their homes and others were summoned to the Ministry of the Interior or to police and National Guard stations, and accused of unauthorized collection of funds. In May, Salwa Dimassi and Ahlam Garat-Ali from Nabeul, mothers of three and five children respectively, were arrested with several other women on suspicion of links with Islamist groups. They remained detained without trial at the end of the year. Bachir ‘Abid, a student arrested in November 1995 and released on bail in March, was rearrested in May and detained for one month on suspicion of unauthorized political activity. Two other students who had been arrested with him the previous year, ‘Ali Jallouli and ‘Abdelmoumen Belanes, were released on bail in April (see Amnesty International Report 1996). Tunisians living abroad were arrested and interrogated about their activities abroad when they returned to Tunisia. Some were imprisoned under a 1993 law which punishes activities outside Tunisia, including participation in peaceful meetings, demonstrations and criticism of the government (see Amnesty International Report 1996). ‘Ali Hadfi, a Tunisian worker resident in Belgium and married to a Belgian national, was arrested in July when he visited Tunisia with his family. He was accused of supporting al-Nahda, and remained detained awaiting trial at the end of the year. Prisoners of conscience were increasingly accused of supporting a "terrorist" or "criminal" organization (see Amnesty International Reports 1994 and 1996). Sou‘ad Charbati, a mother of four from the Gabes region who was arrested in August 1995, was charged with supporting a "criminal" organization and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in February. Bourhan Gasmi and Raja Chamekh were among seven students arrested in August on suspicion of activities on behalf of the PCOT and the Union de la jeunesse communiste. They were detained for up to a week on charges of belonging to a criminal association and were then released on bail. Bourhan Gasmi was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in October. Former prisoners of conscience and relatives of imprisoned and exiled political opponents were increasingly detained for questioning. They were routinely required to report daily, and often two or even three times a day, to police stations, and prevented from leaving the country. After their release in January, ‘Aicha Dhaouadi and Tourkia Hamadi (see Amnesty International Report 1996) were repeatedly questioned, required to report daily to police stations, and prevented from leaving the country. Up to 2,000 political prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience arrested in previous years, remained detained. ‘Ali Ba‘azaoui and ‘Imed ‘Ebdelli continued to serve their sentences. Sofiane Mourali and Hafedh Ben Gharbia (see Amnesty International Report 1996) were released by presidential pardon in May and were able to return to Germany. Mohamed Hedi Sassi and ‘Adel Selmi were released in December. Political trials continued to violate international standards for fair trials. The courts routinely failed to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment and accepted as evidence confessions retracted in court by the defendants, who stated that they had been forced to sign them under torture. Often the court convicted defendants even though no convincing evidence was produced to substantiate the charges. Najib Hosni, a prominent human rights lawyer arrested in 1994, was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment in January 1996 on charges of forgery. There was no convincing evidence to substantiate the charges. He was also charged, in a separate trial, with possession of arms, but was acquitted in November. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience. No investigation was carried out into his complaint of torture the previous year (see Amnesty International Report 1996). He was released in December. Amnesty International observers attended the trials of Mohamed Mou‘adda, Khemais Chammari and Najib Hosni. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported in the Ministry of the Interior and in police and National Guard stations. In May, Jalal al-'Ayachi was reportedly beaten and tortured in a police station in 'Ibn Khaldoun, Tunis. In September, a Swedish national of Algerian origin who had been visiting relatives was arrested at Tunis airport as he was leaving for Sweden. He was held for a week in the Ministry of the Interior in Tunis, where he was beaten and tortured. He was released without charge and went back to Sweden. A former prisoner of conscience, the wife of an Islamist refugee abroad and mother of four, was repeatedly detained and ill-treated throughout the year. She was usually released the same day, but on occasion she was held overnight. In July, she was reportedly undressed, sexually abused and told to divorce. Beatings, denial of adequate medical care, and other forms of ill-treatment were increasingly reported in prisons. ‘Ali al-'Asba‘i, a 64-year-old man detained since February 1991 and sentenced to six years' imprisonment in August 1992 with 278 members and alleged supporters of al-Nahda (see Amnesty International Report 1993), was reportedly beaten and otherwise ill-treated in Bourj el-Roumi Prison and was denied the necessary medical care for a chronic eye infection. He was transferred to Mahdia Prison in August. Mohamed Hedi Sassi, released in December (see above), had reportedly been ill-treated in prison, especially at the beginning of the year. No investigations were carried out into complaints of torture from previous years (see Amnesty International Report 1996). In June, the Secretary General of Amnesty International visited Tunisia but was prevented from meeting prisoners of conscience. He conveyed the organization's serious human rights concerns to President Ben ‘Ali in a meeting with presidential counsellors. In August, Amnesty International wrote to the President to protest at the detention of a Tunisian staff member of its International Secretariat, emphasizing that members of Amnesty International are not involved in research or campaigning on their own countries. In September, Amnesty International issued a joint open letter with the FIDH, Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and Reporters Sans Frontières to President Ben ‘Ali raising concerns regarding the human rights situation in Tunisia, and especially at the increasing targeting of human rights defenders. No response was received from the government.

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