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OUTSPOKEN JOURNALIST FREED EARLY

Following intense lobbying and campaigning by the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC) and other IFEX members, freelance journalist Slim Boukhdhir, known for his outspoken views on the Tunisian President, has been freed - four months before the end of his sentence.

Boukhdhir, a contributor to numerous Tunisian and Arab news websites, was released on 21 July. He told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that he wanted to thank the international community for campaigning for his release. Despite harsh jail conditions - poor hygiene, threats from his fellow prisoners and dispossession of letters and independent newspapers - Boukhdhir said that he had "kept his spirits up high."

"My release from jail is a victory for freedom and independent journalism. The Tunisian regime managed through imprisonment to deprive me of the right to freedom of movement and to do my job while being among my loved ones. But it totally failed to break my will and determination to carry on with independent and ethical journalism," Boukhdhir told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "It's shameful and degrading for the whole country to jail journalists for doing their job."

Although IFEX members welcomed his release, they believed he should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Boukhdhir was arrested last November in Sfax, while on his way to Tunis for a scheduled meeting with a police officer handling his passport application. He was fined and jailed for what were widely seen as fabricated charges of "insulting behaviour" towards an official, violating public decency and refusing to produce his identity papers.

His defence lawyers said the one-year sentence was not only the maximum allowed by law, but it was also unheard of for such offences.

Independent journalists and rights activists have seen Boukhdhir's treatment as retaliation for his coverage of human rights violations under President Ben Ali. In Tunisia, dissidents are rarely charged for their political acts, but instead are falsely accused of more "dishonourable" offences that help to deflect international criticism, says OLPEC.

"Boukhdhir's trial is one of those unfair trials that the Tunisian regime is accustomed to staging in order to punish independent journalists and human rights activists," says OLPEC. "State institutions such as the security apparatus, justice system, and media are mobilised to make people believe that freedom activists in Tunisia are common law criminals. We need to put an end to this policy."

It wasn't the first time Boukhdhir had been targeted; he staged several hunger strikes in recent years to protest government harassment and the authorities' refusal to grant him a passport. He was assaulted in Tunis in May 2007, shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady's brother.

According to CPJ, Tunisia has been the Arab world's leading jailer of journalists for the past seven years. Boukhdhir's release occurred four days before the 51st anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Tunisia - a day on which authorities have previously released political prisoners - and just over a week before the opening of a conference organised by the ruling party that is expected to give Ben Ali the go-ahead to run for President for the fifth time in 2009.

Visit these links:
- IFEX-TMG website: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/index.html
- OLPEC (email): postmaster (@) observatoire-olpec.org
- "IFEX Communiqué", "Journalist given one-year sentence in unfair trial":
http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/88581/
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27894
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/6zmj63
- International Federation of Journalists: http://tinyurl.com/6hmjax
(23 July 2008)

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