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Tunisia: Democracy Deferred
Feb 22, 2004 (040222)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"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
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.
Many thanks to those of you who have already sent in your voluntary
subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you have
not yet made such a payment and would like to do so, please visit
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
Human Rights Watch
Tunisia: Bush Should Call for End to Repression
Tunisian President's U.S. Visit Will Test Bush's Commitment to
(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
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
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
Human Rights Watch
Tunisia: Repression and Harassment of Human Rights Defenders and
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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,
almizen.com, 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
Includes news from official Tunisia Online as well as other news
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
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