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IFEX-TMG outraged at imprisonment of comedian Hédi Ouled Baballah

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is an IFEX-TMG press release:

IFEX-TMG Outraged at Imprisonment of Tunisian Comedian Hédi Ouled Baballah

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is calling for the release of a Tunisian comedian charged and jailed last week on the basis of suspect evidence, which in reality, it believes, is a punishment for mimicking the country's president.

The trigger seems to have been a private recording of comedian Hédi Ouled Baballah's satirical imitation of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which has been spread across the country by mobile phone.

The TMG believes that Ouled Baballah was targeted by police and framed for drugs and currency charges as punishment for making the popular satire. The TMG, a coalition of 18 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network, urges the Tunisian authorities to review the case.

It believes the Tunisian courts should reverse the drugs conviction on appeal and dismiss the currency charges on the grounds that there are serious and credible doubts about the alleged evidence presented to the court.

According to court reports, Ouled Baballah was stopped at a highway checkpoint on 14 January 2008. A policeman confiscated his rented car and drove it to the police station. A few grammes of cannabis were later allegedly 'discovered' by police in the glove compartment. Ouled Baballah was blood tested for drugs while in custody at the police station and came up negative.

While he was in custody, police also searched his home where they allegedly found yet more 'evidence' - some counterfeit foreign currency - possession of which carries a maximum jail sentence of 20 years.

Ouled Baballah strongly denies all knowledge of both drugs and fake currency and maintains that the so-called evidence was planted in both cases. Ouled Baballah was jailed for a year and fined 1,000 dinars (approx. US$800) for possession of cannabis on 4 February and is appealing the sentence. He still awaits a verdict in the currency case.

His claims of a police conspiracy ring true, says IFEX's Tunisian member group, the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC).

In Tunisia dissidents are never charged for their political acts, but instead are falsely accused of more "dishonourable" offences, says OLPEC. Recent victims of this tactic include human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou, jailed for allegedly attacking a female colleague, and journalist Slim Boukhdhir, accused of breaking public morality laws.

This is the second time that Hédi Ouled Baballah has been persecuted for mimicking Ben Ali. After performing a similar sketch last year he was arrested and beaten up by police while held in the Bouchoucha detention centre between 9 and 11 March 2007.

"It looks like yet another trumped-up case against a person who has dared to speak against the president," says IFEX-TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship. "President Ben Ali obviously has as much of a sense of humour as he has a taste for democracy."

The TMG calls for an immediate judicial review of the case and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the alleged evidence. It believes that such a review would conclude that any conviction based on the alleged evidence would contravene internationally accepted legal standards and that Ouled Baballah should be freed pending appeal.

It also urges fellow performers - including French, Algerian and Canadian comedians who took part in the recent Laughter Week comedy festival in Tunis shortly before Ouled Baballah's arrest - to step up in defence of his right to free expression and his right to satirise political powers.

Members of the IFEX-TMG:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, United Kingdom
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), United States
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, United Kingdom
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers' Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Maharat Foundation, Lebanon
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), United States
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), United Kingdom

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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