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RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SPEAK OUT AT WASHINGTON CONFERENCE

Six Tunisian human rights activists descended on Washington, D.C. on 13 November to highlight violations in Tunisia under President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who marks his 20th anniversary in power this month. Recently freed dissident Mohamed Abbou was not one of them. Although he was invited to the conference, he was not permitted to travel, nor was Judge Ahmed Rahmouni.

Despite the organisers having made the participation of Abbou and Rahmouni a condition for the Tunisian government to send a representative, the six activists agreed to allow the government's delegate to speak at the conference. Of the 60 people who attended the conference, about a quarter were from the Tunisian Embassy or were supporters of the government.

The activists joined experts on Tunisia and representatives of international rights organisations, including the event's co-organisers the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International USA and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), at the all-day event, "Tunisia: A Model of Middle East Stability or an Incubator of Extremism?"

Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, representing the TMG, said the conference was organised to give the Tunisian rights activists a chance to speak freely, because "it's not possible to have an open conversation in Tunisia." Pointing out that Tunisia could be a model for the region, Jayasekera asked, "Why is Tunisia failing to live up to its international obligations?"

During a session examining the impact of the "war on terror" on freedom of expression, Naziha Rejiba of the Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d'édition et de creation (OLPEC) spoke passionately about the elimination of a free media, including her magazine "Kalima", which can only publish online. "I am too old to wait for freedom - it is now or never," she told the Tunisian government delegate Emna Ben Arab. She also countered Ben Arab's comments that Tunisia has a great record on women's rights by noting that as an activist, she has been subjected to dirty tactics of intimidation, such as receiving doctored pornographic videotapes and being slandered in the media.

Omar Mestiri of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) presented a new film on torture in Tunisian jails, which was filmed clandestinely in Tunisia.

Members of the TMG have also submitted documents to the UN, including the Universal Periodic Review which is examining the human rights record of Tunisia and other countries which have served on the UN Human Rights Council.

TMG members are now writing to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who met with Ben Ali as part of the official ceremonies of the 20th anniversary in Tunisia. According to the official Tunisian news agency TAP, Ban said, "I had an excellent meeting with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and I paid tribute to his leadership, thanks to which the people of Tunisia enjoy political stability, economic and social conditions and a continued growth in the last 20 years, with an average rate of 5 percent." Ban reportedly also said he hopes Tunisia "will serve as a model for the entire region." Ben Ali has so far refused to allow UN special rapporteurs, including the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, to visit the country.

Visit these links:
- Conference video on Georgetown Law website: http://tinyurl.com/37lo68
- TMG: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/
- TAP report on UN Secretary General Ban: http://tinyurl.com/3ch7xu
- Al Jazeera coverage of the conference: http://tinyurl.com/2m6l2g
(20 November 2007)

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