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Human rights defenders prevented from attending overseas conference

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is an 11 November 2007 Human Rights Watch press release:

Tunisia: Allow Rights Activists to Attend US Conference
Government Consistently Violates Basic Right to Leave Country

(Washington, DC, November 10, 2007) - The Tunisian government should immediately reverse its decision to bar two prominent human rights defenders from leaving the country, a group of leading nongovernmental organizations said today. Tunisia's travel ban has obstructed a scheduled visit next week by eight activists to Washington, DC.

The Tunisian government has barred Judge Ahmed Rahmouni and Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer and former prisoner of conscience, from participating in a delegation attending a conference on democracy and human rights in Tunisia organized by Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International USA, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Tunisia Monitoring Group, and the International Federation for Human Rights. Some participants are also scheduled to meet with US officials, legislators, and civil society advocates.

"The Tunisian government's refusal to let these two activists travel to the United States shows how far it will go to silence discussion of its human rights record," said Maureen Byrnes, executive director of Human Rights First. "These activists are apparently prisoners in their own country. Moreover, this is an affront to those who had invited the men to meet with them."

The US Embassy in Tunis issued visas for each of the activists promptly upon receiving their applications, and State Department officials are scheduled to attend the conference on November 13 and meet with some members of the delegation.

On November 10, 2007, the Tunisian border police at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport prevented Abbou from boarding his flight to the United States. Last week, the Ministry of Justice denied Judge Rahmouni, who chairs the executive board of the Association of Tunisian Judges, the required authorization to travel to the United States.

Tunisia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obligates it to guarantee the right of all citizens to leave their own country, but travel bans have become common under President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The government prevented Abbou, released from prison in July, from leaving Tunisia in August and again in October 2007, when he sought to go to London for an interview with Al Jazeera television and to Cairo to attend and monitor the trial of Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Issa.

Since July, the Tunisian government has also imposed a de facto travel ban on journalist and human rights advocate Kamel Labidi by refusing to give him a new passport. Arbitrary and unjustified refusals to issue a passport to a citizen are a clear violation of Tunisia's obligations under the covenant. Human rights lawyer Mohamed Ennouri and a freelance journalist, Selim Boukhdhir, are currently on hunger strike in Tunis to protest the violation of this basic right.

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