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Comedian jailed for imitating President Ben Ali

(OLPEC/IFEX) - The following is a 9 February 2008 OLPEC press release:

A Tunisian comedian in prison for imitating Ben Ali

On February 4, Tunisian comedian Hedi Ouled Baballah was sentenced by the court of first instance of Ben Arous (suburb of Tunis) to one year in prison and a fine of 1000 dinars (800 USD). He is charged with "possession of a classified narcotic substance."

A few grams of "Zatla" (cannabis) were apparently discovered by the special services during a "routine control". The comedian was accompanied by a driver in a rental car. He was considered by the police and the judge as the only possible "owner" of the drug, which observers believe was planted by police officers in Hédi Ouled Baballah's glove compartment after his arrest, as has happened repeatedly in other similar cases. The blood test conducted by police after Hédi Ouled Baballah's arrest was negative. At the hearing, Hédi Ouled Baballah denied any knowledge of the drug and referred to a police conspiracy against him.

The hypothesis of a police conspiracy seems the most likely for observers who know that in Tunisia dissidents are never convicted for what they really do, but instead for "dishonourable" offences, as was the case for lawyer Mohamed Abbou ("violence against a female colleague"), or more recently, journalist Slim Boukhdhir ("infringement of morality").

Hédi Ouled Baballah had, in fact, produced a sketch in which he imitated President Ben Ali. This sketch circulated widely in Tunisia on an informal basis via a cell phone recording. The sketch was first presented three weeks ago in a private place in Sfax (Tunisia's second city).

This is the second time that Hédi Ouled Baballah has produced a sketch on the same topic. After the production of the first sketch, he was arrested by police and detained at the Bouchoucha detention centre from 9 to 11 March 2007. During his detention, he was severely beaten by security services officers, after which he filed a complaint for "aggravated violence", but his complaint has not been acted upon.

Following this second skit, this drug case has been mounted against him to punish him for having transgressed the "red lines".

The Observatory
- considers this to be a case of police conspiracy and believes that Hédi Ouled Baballah was the victim of a violation of his basic right to freedom of expression under Tunisian laws and international conventions
- demands the unconditional release of the comedian Hédi Ouled Baballah
- calls on all those committed to freedom of expression to demand his release.

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