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IFEX-TMG CALLS FOR LIBEL CHARGES TO BE DROPPED AGAINST JOURNALIST

Members of IFEX's Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) are demanding that all charges be dropped in the criminal defamation trial of Tunisian journalist Omar Mestiri, and that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali improves his country's free expression record.

While TMG welcomed the release last month of lawyer and human rights activist Mohamed Abbou, "it cannot be seen as part of a genuine step on the part of the government toward ending attacks on freedom of expression and association when continued violations persist," TMG chair Carl Morten Iversen says.

Mestiri, managing editor of the online magazine "Kalima", was charged with defamation for a September 2006 article that criticised the reinstatement of a lawyer who had been convicted of fraud and forgery. He faces up to three years in jail.

Like Abbou, Mestiri was charged for an article that Tunisians can't read - the website, hosted on a server in France, has been blocked by the government since its launch in 2000. Both cases stemmed from complaints filed by lawyers close to the authorities, leading to "spurious" charges, says TMG.

According to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), Mestiri's trial is a "farce", having already been postponed twice, and now scheduled for 28 August. "The trial is fresh evidence of how the Tunisian authorities use the judicial system to punish an independent publication," RSF says, noting that Mestiri faces the same judge who in 2005 sentenced Abbou to a three-and-a-half years in prison "in a sham trial."

Over the past years, TMG notes that hundreds of Tunisians have been imprisoned following unfair and politically motivated trials. Even political prisoners who have been released continue to face persecution - denied the right to earn a living and their freedom of movement restricted. In June this year the Interior Ministry extended for 26 months the arbitrary banishment and constant police surveillance of Abdallah Zouari. Formerly a reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly "Al Fajr", Zouari spent 11 years in prison and more than five years under virtual house arrest nearly 500 km from his wife and children.

RSF calls President Ben Ali one of the world's worst "press freedom predators" and classifies the regime as one of the world's "Internet enemies."

Visit these links:
- IFEX/TMG joint action: http://tinyurl.com/39cce4
- RSF on trial postponement: http://tinyurl.com/3dzw3h
- "IFEX Communiqué" on Abbou's release: http://tinyurl.com/2lnb3q
- "Kalima": http://www.kalimatunisie.com/
- "Tunisian democracy: to hope or despair?": http://tinyurl.com/388zhw
(21 August 2007)

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