Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Tunisia

Political context

In 2008, Tunisian Government policy was marked by preparation for important election dates in 2009. In this context, the authorities increased measures intended to weaken and marginalise the principal opposition figures through repression and media clampdown. Members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and journalists had to contend with surveillance or arbitrary bans on travelling, telephones cut off and increased acts of violence. Magistrates were not exempt from these actions. The judiciary system was widely used as a weapon of repression against any dissident voices.

The Tunisian "economic miracle" should not hide the inequalities and severe repression suffered not only by the anti-establishment elite but also, since 2008, by unemployed young people and workers who decided to make their voice heard. Indeed, this year, south-west Tunisia was the scene of unprecedented social protest. The first demonstrations to denounce corruption, poverty and unemployment were seen in January in the town of Redeyef, in mining basin of the Gafsa region and gradually extended to other towns in the basin. National and international protest support groups were rapidly formed. During the summer of 2008, the Tunisian authorities intensified their repression against the movement participants, protestors and support committee leaders. Three protestors died during the demonstrations in Redeyef. The Government's repressive response to the claims made by the inhabitants of the mining basin was a new illustration of the democratic deficiency that poisons Tunisia. As at the end of 2008, the judicial enquiries announced by the Government to determine responsibility for these tragic events had still not been carried out and those responsible had not been troubled.

Finally, despite the commitments made to the UN Human Rights Council by the Tunisian authorities in the context of the Universal Periodic Review, and the recommendations made to them by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2008, no progress was noted this year in terms of respect and promotion of human rights, with the exception of the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the withdrawal of its declaration No. 1 and reservations No. 1 and No. 3 regarding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Furthermore, the Tunisian Government did not keep its promises to issue an invitation to the UN Special Procedures.

Judicial harassment of human rights defenders and journalists who denounce human rights violations

Arbitrary judicial proceedings against defenders, including against journalists who denounced human rights violations continued during 2008. For instance, Mr. Tarek Soussi, a leading member of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (Association internationale de soutien aux prisonniers politiques – AISPP), was arrested following the publication on August 25 of apress release on the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of seven young men in Bizerte on August 22 and 23, 2008 and after his interview on the affair on the Al Jazeera news channel. He was released on September 25 but, as of the end of 2008, proceedings were ongoing for "spreading false information liable to disrupt public order". The regime also continued attacks on the media and journalists. Mr. Slim Boukhdir, a correspondent of the London-based newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, which regularly covers events relating to defenders, was sentenced at an appeal hearing on January 18, 2008 to one year's imprisonment on false grounds.1 Furthermore, since October 2008, harassment has intensified against the on-line newspaper and radio station Kalima and its contributors. This has taken the form of the questioning and arrest of journalists, a smear campaign, destruction of the web server, a false claim for payment of tax arrears, etc. On October 27, 2008, Ms. Neziha Rejiba, Editor-in-chief of Kalima, who attributed responsibility for the attack on the Kalima server to the Tunisian authorities, was questioned by the Deputy Prosecutor at the Tunis Law Court following a complaint for "allegations contrary to the law". As of the end of 2008 there had been no follow-up to this complaint. The Interior Ministry also banned distribution of the weekly newspaper Mouwatinoun, which had published the journalist's article.

Repression of the Gafsa social protest movement

In the Gafsa mining region, repression affected both the demonstrators and those who expressed their solidarity and condemned the wave of repression. Arrests that contravened legal procedure were made of over 200 people, including trade unionists and human rights defenders, and judicial proceedings were instituted against them. Most of those imprisoned were ill-treated and some were tortured. Extremely heavy sentences were pronounced at the end of the trials, which were marred by serious irregularities, notably the systematic refusal by the judges to investigate the defendants' allegations of torture. On December 11, 2008, the Gafsa Court of First Instance sentenced 33 of the 38 persons considered to be leaders of the movement, for "forming a criminal group with the aim of destroying public and private property" and "armed rebellion by more than ten people and assault on officials during the exercise of their duties" for between two years'suspended prison sentence to up to ten years' imprisonment, in particular for trade union members Messrs. Adnane Hajji, Bechir Labidi and Taeïb Ben Othmane. Mr. Mohieddine Cherbib, President of the Tunisian Federation of the Citizens of Two Shores (Fedération tunisienne des citoyens des deux rives – FTCR) and a member of the Committee for the Respect of Freedoms and Human Rights in Tunisia (Comité pour le respect des libertés et des droits de l'Homme en Tunisie – CRLDHT), was sentenced by default to two years' imprisonment because of his activities in France in support of the people of the Gafsa basin. Mr. Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist with the independent television channel Al Hiwar Attounsi, who covered the events, was also sentenced in absentia to six years in prison. His trial was characterised by the massive presence of security forces and the lack of any contradictory debate or the hearing of the defendants.2 The verdict led to further protests, which were also repressed by arrests, judicial proceedings and prison sentences.3

Furthermore, Ms. Zakia Dhifaoui, a member of the Association for the Fight Against Torture in Tunisia (Association de lutte contre la torture en Tunisie – ALTT), the Kairouan branch of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'Homme en Tunisie – LTDH) and the National Council for Freedoms in Tunisia (Conseil national des libertés en Tunisie – CNLT), was arrested without a warrant in Redeyef on July 27, 2008 after taking part in a peaceful march in support of the release of all the Gafsa detainees and at which Ms. Dhifaoui had been a speaker. On September 15, 2008, the Gafsa Appeal Court sentenced her to four and a half months in prison for "insubordination, disturbing public order, obstructing an official in the exercise of his duty, damaging other people's property and attacking public morals", ignoring the defendant's allegations of torture and ill-treatment and in violation of several fundamental rules of the right to a fair trial. When she left prison, Ms. Dhifaoui was not reinstated to her job as a teacher. In parallel, several other defenders who supported the protest movement were not prosecuted for acts relating to the protest but were targeted and harassed by the authorities for other reasons. Messrs. Othman Jmili and Ali Neffati, AISPP members, together with Messrs. Khaled Boujemaa and Faouzi Sadkaoui, members of the association Equity and Freedom (Équité et liberté), were arrested on July 25, 2008 and, at an appeal hearing on October 28, 2008, were given a six months' suspended prison sentence for "gathering on the public highway" and "attacking morality". The authorities suspected them of having taken part in a peaceful rally in front of Bizerte town hall on July 25, in the company of political activists and human rights defenders, at the time of the anniversary of the Republic when slogans had been chanted in support of public liberties, against the high cost of living and against life presidency. Mr. Mohamed Hedi Ben Saïd, a member of the Bizerte branch of LTDH, was sentenced on September 4, 2008 for infringing the Highway Code, after he allegedly took part in the July 25 rally in front of Bizerte town hall. Finally, since March 2008, Mr. Messaoud Romdhani, President of the Kairouan branch of LTDH and Spokesperson for the National Support Committee for Inhabitants of the Gafsa Mining Basin (Comité national de soutien à la population du bassin minier de Gafsa), has suffered considerable police harassment. He was attacked by policemen on May 23 and since this date has been subject to a ban on residency in Tunis.

Restrictions on human rights defenders' freedom of movement

In 2008, several defenders continued to be routinely prevented from circulating freely within the country and even from leaving national territory. In particular, Mr. Ali Ben Salem, Chair of the Bizerte branch of LTDH and Vice-President of ALTT, remained banned from leaving the country. On June 18, 2008, the Algerian border police turned back Ms. Sihem Bensedrine, CNLT Spokesperson, and Mr. Omar Mestiri, Managing Editor of the Kalima web magazine, while they were crossing the Oum Tboul border post near Tabarka (north-west Tunisia) for a private visit to Algeria, without being given any reason. The border police at Tunis Carthage airport also prevented Ms. Bensedrine from leaving the country in August 2008. Similarly, on December 10, Mr. Lotfi Hidouri, News Desk Editor of the magazine Kalima and a member of the Observatory for the Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (Observatoire pour la liberté de la presse, d'édition et de création – OLPEC), was arrested at Tunis Carthage airport while he was preparing to board for Lebanon, where he was due to take part in the Third Arab Press Forum in Beirut, using as a pretext a two-year-old fine of 100 dinars, which he had quickly paid within the required period.4

Verbal and physical attacks on lawyers and human rights defenders who defend the rights of detainees

The Tunisian authorities' recourse to verbal or physical attacks, as well as tailing and almost permanent surveillance of defenders, continued in 2008, especially against lawyers and defenders who denounced prison detention conditions. On June 29, 2008, at Tunis Carthage airport, six plain-clothed policemen threatened Mr. Anouar Kousri, lawyer and Deputy President of LTDH, and Mr. Samir Dilou, lawyer and a member of AISPP, and used violence against them when they returned from Paris, where they had taken part in a press conference organised by Amnesty International for the publication of a report on human rights violations committed in the context of counter-terrorism in Tunisia, including against people detained in this connection. On February 13-18, 2008, while they were collecting the testimony of prisoners' families, Ms. Fatma Ksila, Secretary General of CRLDHT, and Ms. Samia Abbou, a member of ALTT, were subjected to verbal and physical attacks – insulting telephone messages, police cordons preventing them from reaching the families, tailings, beatings by police officers wearing plain clothes, confiscation of cash, a camera and a tape recorder.

Finally, lawyers working on sensitive cases, such as the Soliman or the Gafsa movement cases, were almost systematically attacked and prevented from meeting their clients in prison. As an example, Ms. Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer, President of ALTT and a member of OMCT Assembly of Delegates, was regularly forbidden to meet her clients. For his part, Mr. Abderrouf Ayadi, a lawyer, former member of the Council of the Order of Lawyers and former CNLT Secretary General, was violently attacked by the Director of Mornagia prison on August 2, 2008, at the end of a visit to one of his clients.

Increased smear campaigns against human rights defenders

In 2008, smear campaigns against defenders multiplied. During the first quarter of 2008, Ms. Souhayr Belhassen, President of FIDH, Ms. Sihem Bensedrine, Ms. Radhia Nasraoui, Mr. Kamel Jendoubi, President of CRLDHT, Mr. Khemais Chammari, Co-founding member of the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation of Support to Human Rights Defenders (Fondation euro-méditerranéenne de soutien des défenseurs des droits de l'homme – FEMDH), Mr. Mokhtar Trifi, President of LTDH, Mr. Khémais Ksila, Secretary General of LTDH in exile, and Mr. Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the lawyer of many defenders, were victims of a smear campaign by editorial staff of the pro-Government newspaper Al-Hadath. Throughout 2008, the newspaper notably published several libellous articles of an obscene nature against these defenders, accusing them of being "traitors in the hands of foreign interests", or "henchmen" of the Western embassies. In December, a smear campaign was also launched against Ms. Sihem Bensedrine, and relayed by various Tunisian, Arab and European newspapers and Lebanese television channels.

Ongoing obstacles to freedom of association

In 2008, many independent human rights associations remained illegal, as was the case, for example, of CNLT, AISPP, ALTT, the Centre for the Independence of Justice and Lawyers (Centre pour l'indépendance de la justice et des avocats – CIJA), the Assembly for an International Development Alternative (Rassemblement pour une alternative internationale de développement – RAID-Attac Tunisia) and OLPEC. In some cases the fate of certain organisations that are registered was no more enviable. LTDH continued to be prevented from carrying out its activities. As an example, on December 10, 2008, the police force prevented a reception from being held organised by LTDH to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. LTDH has been prevented from holding its congress since 2005. Finally, access to LTDH branch premises and its national headquarters remained blocked to everyone, with the exception of members of the Board Committee for the national headquarters. Similarly, harassment of former members of the Executive Board of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates (Association des magistrats tunisiens – AMT) elected in December 20045 continued, notably on December 21, 2008, when they were forcibly prevented from attending the AMT congress.6

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 20087

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Slim BoukhdirSentencing / Arbitrary detention / Ill-treatmentPress ReleaseFebruary 1, 2008
Conditional releaseUrgent Appeal TUN 005/1207/OBS 170.1July 23, 2008
Mr. Taoufik Ben BrikBan on residencePress ReleaseFebruary 1, 2008
Members of the General Union of Tunisian Students (Union générale des étudiants tunisiens – UGET)Arbitrary arrests / Judicial proceedingsPress ReleaseFebruary 1, 2008
Ms. Fatma Ksila, Ms. Samia Abbou and Ms. Radhia NasraouiAttacks / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 001/0208/OBS 019February 20, 2008
Ms. Souhayr Belhassen, Ms. Sihem Bensedrine, Ms. Radhia Nasraoui, Messrs. Kamel Jendoubi, Khemais Chammari, Mokhtar Trifi and Khémais KsilaDefamation / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 002/0308/OBS 031March 4, 2008
Mr. Omar Mestiri and Ms. Sihem BensedrineArrest / Attacks / Ill-treatment / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 003/0308/OBS 032March 4, 2008
Refoulement at the border / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 008/0608/OBS 107June 20, 2008
Acts of harassment / Ill-treatmentUrgent Appeal TUN 008/0608/OBS 107.1August 21, 2008
Messrs. Adnane Hajji, Foued Khenaissi, Taeïb Ben Othmane, Boujomâa Chraïti, Bechir Laabidi and Mohieddine CherbibArbitrary arrests / Ill-treatmentUrgent Appeal TUN 004/0408/OBS 049April 8, 2008
Release / Arbitrary detentionUrgent Appeal TUN 004/0408/OBS 049.1April 14, 2008
Judicial harassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 004/0408/OBS 049.2September 18, 2008
Violation of the right to a fair trialPress ReleaseDecember 13, 2008
Mr. Khemais ChammariActs of harassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 005/0408/OBS 057April 14, 2008
Mr. Taoufik Ben Brik and Ms. Radhia NasraouiActs of harassment and intimidationUrgent Appeal TUN 006/0408/OBS 069April 29. 2008
Ms. Radhia Nasraoui, Ms. Saida Garrach, Messrs. Abderraouf Ayadi, Ridha Reddaoui, Zouari, Mohamed Abbou, Mondher Cherni, Ayachi Hammami, Khaled Krichi and Chokri BelaidActs of harassment and intimidation / AttacksUrgent Appeal TUN 001/0407/OBS 037.3May 22, 2008
Attacks / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 001/0407/OBS 037.4August 4. 2008
Messrs. Messaoud Romdhani and Naceur LaagiliArbitrary arrest / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 007/0508/OBS 091May 28, 2008
Messrs. Anouar Kousri and Samir DilouAttacks / Ill-treatment / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 009/0708/OBS 112July 2, 2008
Ms. Zakia DhifaouiArbitrary arrest / Judicial harassmentPress ReleaseJuly 31, 2008
SentencingPress ReleaseAugust 19, 2008
Sentencing on appealPress ReleaseSeptember 16, 2008
Conditional releasePress ReleaseNovember 7, 2008
Messrs. Othman Jmili, Faouzi Sadkaoui, Lotfi Hajji, Mohamed Ben Saïd and Ali Ben SalemArbitrary arrest / HarassmentPress ReleaseJuly 31, 2008
Mr. Tarek SoussiArbitrary detention / Ill-treatmentUrgent Appeal TUN 010/0908/OBS 147September 5, 2008
Judicial harassment / Provisional releaseUrgent Appeal TUN 010/1008/OBS 158October 1, 2008
Ms. Naziha RjibaArbitrary detention / HarassmentUrgent Appeal TUN 011/1008/OBS 169October 22, 2008
Judicial proceedingsUrgent Appeal TUN 011/1008/OBS 169.1October 24, 2008
Urgent Appeal TUN 011/1008/OBS 169.2October 29, 2008

1 He allegedly refused to present his identity card to the police. He was released on July 21, 2008 but he has been refused a passport since 2003.

2 At an appeal hearing, on February 3, 2009, the defendants were given from two years' suspended prison sentence to eight years in prison. The appeal trial was also marred by flagrant violations of the right to a fair trial.

3 See National Support Committee for Inhabitants of the Gafsa Mining Basin Press Release, December 20, 2008.

4 See OLPEC Press Release, December 12, 2008.

5 Since their election, several members have been victims of acts of intimidation aimed at punishing magistrates who decided to be involved in defending the independence of AMT and the promotion of institutional reforms to guarantee the independence of justice.

6 See LTDH Press Release, December 22, 2008.

7 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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