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Online newspaper editor's libel trial turning into farce after second postponement

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders said the trial of Omar Mestiri, the editor of the online newspaper "Kalima", for libel was turning into a "farce" after a Tunis criminal court on 16 August 2007 postponed it for a second time, until 28 August, at the request of the plaintiff's lawyers. It had already been postponed for two weeks at the plaintiff's request on 2 August.

A Reporters Without Borders representative who attended the hearing on 16 August said there was considerable tension between the plaintiff's and Mestiri's lawyers as they left the courtroom. Mestiri's lawyers had been told to come at 9:00 a.m. (local time), but the hearing did not start until 5:00 p.m. The plaintiff's lawyers did not have to provide the court with any information in order to obtain this second postponement.

"This trial is fresh evidence of how the Tunisian authorities use the judicial system to punish an independent publication," Reporters Without Borders said. "Our fears are heightened by the fact that this case has been entrusted to the same judge who imposed a three and a half year prison sentence on lawyer and cyber-dissident Mohammed Abbou in a sham trial in April 2005."

The suit against Mestiri was brought by Tunisian lawyer Mohammed Baccar in March of 2007 over an article published on 5 September 2006 in which Mestiri condemned a decision allowing Baccar to resume practising law. Baccar had previously been disbarred for "fraud and forgery."

Mestiri's lawyers are challenging the suit's legality on two grounds. Firstly, under Tunisian law, a libel action must be brought within three months of an article's publication and Baccar let more than six months go by before filing his suit. Secondly, they point out that access to the "Kalima" website is blocked in Tunisia so no one could have seen the article there.

"Kalima" reporter Sihem Bensedrine said Tunisian and international observers were barred from the courtroom during the first hearing in violation of one of the criteria of a fair trial, which is openness.

Mestiri has been "Kalima"'s editor since 2004. The authorities prevented production of a printed version of "Kalima" but the newspaper has existed in electronic form since 2000. However, access to the website, which is hosted on a server in France, has been blocked in Tunisia ever since its launch.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has been Tunisia's president since 1987, is on the Reporters Without Borders list of the world's 34 "press freedom predators". The regime is also one of the most repressive in the world as regards the circulation of news and information online. It is therefore classified by Reporters Without Borders as one of the world's "Internet enemies," alongside countries such as Belarus and North Korea.

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