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IFEX-TMG members call on president to cease harassment of human rights defenders and journalists

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is a joint declaration by members of the IFEX-TMG:

IFEX-TMG members call on Tunisian President to cease harassment of human rights defenders and journalists

We, the undersigned members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), again call on Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to stop persecuting human rights defenders and journalists. Since the TMG's last fact-finding mission in April 2006, we have received reports of harassment of journalist Hamadi Jebali and his family, rights defender Moncef Marzouki, journalist Mohamed Fourati, members of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (widely known by its French acronym CNLT), and the family of jailed lawyer and human rights defender Mohamed Abbou.

When the IFEX-TMG mission went to Tunisia in April, members were surprised to find that at least one official assumed that the IFEX-TMG would no longer visit Tunisia, nor produce reports or statements, after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) ended in November 2005.

We continue to monitor the state of free expression in Tunisia and we are dismayed that the government routinely harasses human rights activists and journalists who speak out about violations - including disturbing family gatherings such as the wedding of Hamadi Jebali's daughter in November. The family of Mohamed Abbou is constantly followed and harassed by police agents. According to Amnesty International, on 25 October, police officers on motorcycles drove at Samia Abbou and her two children in an apparent attempt to intimidate and frighten them. We once again call for the release of Mohamed Abbou, jailed since June 2005 for his online reporting of human rights violations. He is not due for release for over two years.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Jebali is again facing harassment shortly after his attempt to visit Moncef Marzouki, leader of the banned Congress for the Republic political party, who returned to Tunisia in October 2006 after five years of self-imposed exile in France. Marzouki himself has recently been charged with "incitement to civil disobedience", an offence punishable by up to three years' imprisonment, for urging Tunisians to hold peaceful protests to demand greater respect for their rights in an interview aired by the Qatar-based TV channel Al-Jazeera on 14 October.

We find that it is an extreme reaction to threaten to put someone in jail - and for such a lengthy sentence - for peacefully expressing themselves. We also note that the Tunisian government closed its embassy in Doha, Qatar in reaction to Marzouki's interview. Marzouki, who is living in Sousse under virtual house arrest as a result of the security officials surrounding his home, has been attacked and insulted by thugs and plainclothes police and received threatening phone calls.

Another journalist faces continuous judicial harassment. Mohamed Fourati, a freelance journalist, was summoned to appear before a court of appeals in the southern city of Gafsa on 1 December for allegedly belonging to a non-authorised group. This is the fifth time he was summoned by a court even though he was acquitted in 2003.

We also note with concern the ongoing harassment of human rights groups, such as the CNLT. On 4 November, the CNLT reported that the routine harassment which they have been facing for the past year had escalated in the past month. From 30 October to 4 November, the office was under siege by plainclothes police who blocked the entrance, and around sixty police officers surrounded the area. They prevented the families of political prisoners from entering, even arresting some of them and forcing them to sign documents promising not to return. According to the CNLT, their mail is regularly intercepted and returned, their Internet connection is cut, and their telephone and fax lines are rerouted to an unknown destination. As with the Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'Homme, LTDH), the CNLT has been prevented from holding its General Assembly since 2004.

We respectfully remind President Ben Ali that Tunisia's election to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June carries with it a responsibility to ensure that human rights violations are not pervasive in one's own country. We insist that the Tunisian government cease its ongoing violations of free expression, including such shameful incidents of persecution of the families of dissidents and threats to their children.

Signed by IFEX-TMG Members:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo.net), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers' Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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