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Tunisia: Democracy Deferred

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 22, 2004 (040222)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"This week, President Bush played host to President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia, giving this ruthless autocrat a long-coveted audience at the White House," writes exiled Tunisian journalist Kamel Labidi in the New York Times. "To his credit, Mr. Bush rebuked Mr. ben Ali for his violations of press freedom, but the United States is sorely mistaken if it believes that democracy and the rule of law can ever take hold under leaders like Mr. ben Ali. ... Tunisia today is one of the world's most efficient police states."

The commentary by Labidi, who is also the former director of Amnesty International Tunisia, continues, "Since his ouster of President Habib Bourguiba in a coup in 1987, Mr. ben Ali has quashed virtually all dissent and silenced a civil society that once was an example of vibrancy for North Africa and the neighboring Middle East" (for full text see

Before the presidential meeting on February 18, human rights groups and other Tunisian exiles also called for the U.S. to match rhetorical commitment to democracy with real pressure on Tunisia. But official statements following the meeting praised Tunisia's commitment to reform and stressed continuation of the close ties between the two countries.

The U.S. seems to have no problem in deferring closer questioning about democracy in the North African country. Nevertheless, Tunisia is scheduled to host the November 2005 world summit on the information society, and the country will be coming under increased scrutiny as the date for the summit approaches. Tunisian democracy advocates are still making extensive use of the internet to get their message out.

This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains statements from Human Rights Watch and a background briefing from Reporters without Borders on press freedom and the internet in Tunisia, as well as links to other recent commentary and more extensive background on human rights and democracy in Tunisia.


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Human Rights Watch

Tunisia: Bush Should Call for End to Repression

Tunisian President's U.S. Visit Will Test Bush's Commitment to Mideast Democracy

(Washington D.C., February 14, 2004) -- U.S. President George W. Bush should publicly state that Tunisia's policies of repression are incompatible with his administration's initiative on democracy in the Middle East, Human Rights Watch said today. Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali will meet with Bush at the White House on February 18. "Tunisia bills itself as a moderate Muslim nation," said Joe Stork, acting director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "But there is nothing moderate in the way authorities repress nearly all forms of dissent."

President Ben Ali has won U.S. praise for his cooperation in antiterrorism efforts. Tunisia receives modest U.S. military aid, and the two countries conduct joint military exercises.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged political reforms and greater openness in Tunisia during a visit to Tunis in December. However, President Bush has omitted mention of Tunisia in his speeches advocating democracy in the region. Ben Ali's visit to Washington is the first by an Arab leader since Bush unveiled his initiative for democracy in the Middle East.

"The credibility of President Bush's plan to promote democracy for the Middle East is on the line," Stork said. "Ben Ali's government tolerates almost no dissent. Bush needs to speak candidly and publicly to demonstrate that his initiative is serious."

Tunisia's ruling party dominates political life nationally and locally. In 2002 the Tunisian parliament approved constitutional amendments making President Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987, eligible to stand for reelection in October 2004 and again in 2009. In the past three presidential elections, Ben Ali was reelected with an official tally of more than 99 percent. Tunisia has few genuinely independent organizations. Apart from a few low-circulation magazines, none of the print and broadcast media offer critical coverage of government policies.

"Tunisia should be leading the way on democracy in the region, given its economic and social achievements, and the status of women" said Stork. "Instead it has moved backwards."

Most of Tunisia's 500 political prisoners are suspected Islamists who were convicted after unfair trials on nonviolent charges such as membership in a political organization outlawed by the government.

The Tunisian judiciary lacks independence, especially in political trials. Judges turn a blind eye to torture allegations and procedural irregularities, convicting defendants on the basis of dubious confessions. Prisons are overcrowded and conditions are harsh. Several prominent long-term prisoners have been held for years at a time in isolation, where they are denied reading and writing materials and adequate medical care. Released political prisoners are frequently refused passports and subject to onerous sign-in requirements with the police. The police also put pressure on employers not to hire ex-prisoners.

"The government claims it is simply applying the law to curb illegal acts by extremists," said Stork. "But those who are jailed and harassed encompass a wide range of dissidents, including nonviolent Islamists, secular liberals, leftists and human rights activists."

Human Rights Watch

Tunisia: Repression and Harassment of Human Rights Defenders and Organizations

February 14, 2004

Sihem Bensedrine, a journalist and founding member of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), was assaulted on January 5, 2004, as she left her home in downtown Tunis to go to an Internet caf‚. She was accosted by three men in plainclothes, one of whom tripped and then beat and insulted her. Ms Bensedrine accused the police of carrying out the assault; she and other human rights activists have been beaten on previous occasions by men who were never identified or brought to justice. On January 13, 2004, she was turned away at the Interior Ministry when she tried, for the third time since 1999, to register her magazine Kalima. By law, registration is supposed to be a mere formality, but the refusal by authorities to issue a receipt for the notification -a common practice when it comes to independent journals and organizations - makes her publication legally vulnerable.

Lassaad Jouhri, a human rights activist and ex-political prisoner, was assaulted on August 30, 2003, by four men in plainclothes in front of the downtown Tunis law office of Mohamed Nouri. This attack resembled two prior assaults on him by state security officers. Jouhri has been a key intermediary between prisoners and their families, on the one hand, and those seeking information about human rights conditions in Tunisia, on the other. Injuries he sustained from torture in prison years ago have left him disabled.

Police have long harassed Radhia Nasraoui, a Tunis lawyer known for her outspoken promotion of human rights and defense of political prisoners. They have subjected her and her daughters to menacing surveillance and intimidated her clients. Her home and office have been the target of numerous suspicious break-ins in previous years. On July 13, 2003, unidentified men assaulted her.

Mohamed Nouri, a prominent rights lawyer and chair of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP), was prevented from leaving the country on December 9, 2003, as he was planning to attend a round-table meeting on freedom of expression in Geneva. The pretext was a judicial investigation into a charge of disseminating "false" information several months earlier.

Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, president of the Tunisian Center for an Independent Judiciary (CIJT), was dismissed in December 2001 from his judgeship for writing an open letter to President Ben Ali criticizing the lack of judicial independence. In August 2003, he was accused with Mohammed Nouri of disseminating "false" information. He has been prevented from leaving the country since November 2001.

Abdullah Zouari, a journalist for the now-defunct publication Al-Fajr, linked to the Nahdha party, spent 11 years in prison after an unfair trial on charges of "membership in an illegal organization." Freed in November 2002, he helped to publicize human rights abuses in the southern region to which he has been banished. In July he was re-arrested and is now serving a new nine-month sentence on charges of violating an administrative order restricting his movements.

Independent human rights organizations like the CIJT, the AISPP, and the CNLT have never been legally recognized by the government. The venerable Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), while legal, has been hampered by government-inspired legal maneuvers designed to undermine its independence and outspokenness. In November 2003, the government prevented the League from receiving a grant from the European Commission.

Tunisia: Recommended Steps on Human Rights

Tunisian authorities should:

  • Declare an amnesty for all political prisoners convicted for activities not linked to acts of violence. All other prisoners convicted for politically motivated acts in proceedings that did not conform to international standards for a fair trial should be granted a new and fair trial or released. Pending such action, authorities should bring conditions for prisoners up to international norms by ending practices that include extended isolation regimes for selected political prisoners and the deprivation of reading and writing materials. Those in long-term isolation from other prisoners include Habib Ellouz and Ali Laaridh, serving a life term and fifteen years respectively after being convicted in unfair mass trials before military courts in 1992.
  • End harassment of released political prisoners by granting them passports. Cases of ex-prisoners denied passports include Ali Ben Hedi Rouahi, from the city of Bizerte, who is unable to join his family in Europe; Lassaad Jouhri, a human rights defender from Tunis who was tortured while in prison, and who is being denied even a national ID card; Hedi Ben Boubaker, from Golaat (Douz), who was released in November 1999 and cannot join his wife in France; and Hatem Ben Romdhane, from Tunis, released in January 2003.
  • End harassment of human rights defenders, notably by investigating the pattern of physical assaults on them and bringing to justice the men who carried them out. Such assaults in public places by unidentified men are too common to be coincidental and have never resulted in the identification and punishment of the perpetrators.
  • End arbitrary travel bans on former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui of the Tunisian Center for an Independent Judiciary (CIJT) and lawyer Mohammed Nouri of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP).
  • End legal harassment of human rights organizations. Authorities have refused legal authorization to human rights organizations, including the CNLT, AISPP, and CIJT. On Saturday, January 3, 2004 police blocked efforts by the AISPP to hold a congress. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) has legal status but is facing constant legal and administrative pressures from the government, including politically motivated lawsuits challenging its internal elections and, recently, blockage of a grant issued to the LTDH by the European Union.

Tunisia: The Internet under Surveillance

Reporters without Borders

The government says it favours rapid and democratic growth of the Internet. But in practice, state security police keep it under very tight control. Sites are censored, e-mail intercepted, cybercaf‚s monitored and users arrested and arbitrarily imprisoned. One cyber-dissident was arrested in 2002 and sent to jail for two years.

The country has been online since the mid-1990s and the Internet is more widespread than in the rest of North Africa because the government promotes it as a major economic tool. It is administered by the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), which is part of the telecommunications ministry.

Phone lines are good and the government has encouraged ISPs, of which there are six state-owned and six privately-owned. The authorities have set up 300 cybercafes ("publinets") throughout the country and says all universities and secondary schools and universities are on the Internet.

Press freedom does not exist in Tunisia, so people have taken wholesale to the Internet to take part in it there. This is what journalist Sihem Bensedrine did when she could not get permission to publish a newspaper and instead set up an online magazine, Kalima. But President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali and his powerful police apparatus are determined to stamp out all cyber-dissidence.

The Tunisian government runs one of the world's most extensive Internet censorship operations. The only ISPs allowed to serve the general public are those owned by the president's associates, including his daughter. The ATI ensures that the market is tightly controlled by the authorities. ISPs must sign a contract saying they will only allow customers to use the Internet for "scientific, technological and commercial purposes strictly to do with their area of activity."

Cyberspace in Tunisia has been regulated since 2001 by the press law, which provides for censorship. Access to some news websites, such as Kalima and TUNeZINE, but also those of NGOs and foreign media carrying criticism of the government, is routinely blocked.

The powers of the "cyber-police"

The managers of the publinets have the right to check what sites their customers are looking at and can force them to disconnect at any time. There is plenty of evidence that cybercafes are closely watched by the police. Plainclothes officers regularly collect details of Internet activity from the machines to check who has been looking at what sites.

Control of telecommunications, including the Internet, was stepped up further in 2002 and a full-scale corps of cyber-police went into operation to track down "subversive" websites to be blocked, intercept e-mail or attempts to reach sites containing "political or critical" material, hunt for and neutralise "proxy" servers used to get round directly-blocked access to sites, and track down and arrest "over-active" Internet users - the cyber-dissidents.

About 20 young men were arrested at their homes in the southern town of Zarzis on 5 February 2003. In April, seven of them, including a minor, were in prison in Tunis for "delinquency, theft and obtaining material to make explosives" as a result of consulting "terrorist" websites. Their lawyer, who visited them in jail, said they had been tortured.

The daily paper La Presse reported on 22 April 2003 that the government had stopped issuing permits to open privately-owned cybercaf‚s and had said access to the Internet would be limited to the government-controlled publinets.

"Ettounsi" sent to prison for two years

Zouhair Yahyaoui was arrested by plainclothes police on 4 June 2002 in Tunis, at a computer centre where he worked. He was taken to his home, where they searched his bedroom and seized his computer equipment.

During interrogation, he was tortured with three sessions of being made to hang by his arms with feet off the ground. As a result of this, he gave them the password to his website, which allowed the authorities to block access to it.

Yahyaoui, who used the pseudonym "Ettounsi" ("The Tunisian" in Arabic), founded the website TUNeZINE in July 2001 to put out news about the fight for democracy and freedom in the country and to publicise opposition material. He wrote many columns and essays and was the first to publish an open letter that his uncle, Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, had sent to President Ben Ali denouncing the Tunisian judiciary's lack of independence. The judge's own website,, which his nephew also ran, was destroyed.

TUNeZINE was censored by the authorities right from the start. But its fans each week received a list of "proxy" servers through which they could access it.

He was sentenced by an appeals court on 10 July 2002 to a year in prison for "putting out false news to give the impression there had been a criminal attack on persons or property" (article 306-3 of the penal code) and another year for "theft by the fraudulent use of a communications link," meaning an Internet connection at a cybercaf‚ where he worked (article 84 of the communications code). He was jailed in very harsh conditions and staged two hunger-strikes in early 2003 to protest against his imprisonment.

Additional Links - Current

International Freedom of Expression Clearing House (IFEX)
Alerts on Tunisia, including Feb. 18 press release

On-line magazine, in French and Arabic

Reporters without Borders
Letter to European Commission protesting support to Tunisian state media
Includes news from official Tunisia Online as well as other news and statements

Le Autre Tunisie
Commentary and news, in French

Statement from Tunisian Civil Society, Jan. 22, 2004

Additional Links - Background

Comite pour le Respect des Libertes et
des Droits de l'Homme en Tunisie
Has material through year 2000, in French

Maghreb des droites de l'Homme
Covers Tunisia and other North African states, in French

Middle East Report, Oct-Dec 1997
Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia

Le Monde Diplomatique
Un miracle tunisien aux pieds d'argile

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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