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A Tunisian comedian was framed for drugs and fake currency charges and sentenced to a year behind bars as punishment for imitating the Tunisian President, says the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG).

On 4 February, comedian Hedi Ouled Baballah was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 Dinars (US$800) for "possession of a classified narcotic substance."

According to court reports, Ouled Baballah was stopped at a highway checkpoint on 14 January and taken to a police station. His rental car was confiscated by police, who later discovered a few grams of cannabis in the glove compartment.

While he was in custody, police also searched his home where they allegedly found some counterfeit foreign currency, possession of which carries a maximum jail sentence of 20 years. He has yet to go to trial on that charge, and the IFEX-TMG will continue to monitor his case.

Ouled Baballah denies possessing the drugs or bogus money, and believes they were planted by police officers as a way to arrest him for his real "crime" - mocking President Ben Ali. A private recording of his imitation was circulated widely by mobile phone.

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

According to IFEX's Tunisian member, the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC), Baballah's claims of a police conspiracy are warranted.

In Tunisia dissidents are rarely charged for their political acts, but instead are falsely accused of more "dishonourable" offences, says OLPEC. Recent victims 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 Ouled Baballah has been persecuted for mimicking Ben Ali. After performing a similar sketch last year he was arrested and beaten by police while held in the Bouchoucha detention centre for three days in March 2007.

IFEX-TMG says the charges should be reversed and dismissed as there are "serious and credible doubts about the alleged evidence." It also urges fellow performers to step up in defence of Ouled Baballah's right to free expression and to satirise political powers.

Visit these links:
- IFEX-TMG website:
- Kalima Tunisie:
(19 February 2008)

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