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TMG protests attack on journalist and representative of IFEX member group, Sihem Bensedrine at Tunis Airport

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is a 20 August 2008 IFEX-TMG press release:

TMG protests attack on journalist and representative of IFEX member group, Sihem Bensedrine at Tunis Airport

Members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 18 member organisations of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network, are appalled at the violent treatment on 19 August 2008 in the Tunis airport of journalist Sihem Bensedrine, Secretary General of the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC), IFEX's member in Tunisia, and an IFEX-TMG partner. She is also a member of the IFEX Council, IFEX's governing body.

Border police at Tunis-Carthage International Airport barred Bensedrine from leaving the country as she prepared to board a Vienna-bound flight on 19 August, reports OLPEC. After submitting to a thorough search of her belongings, Bensedrine was told to follow the agents to an office. OLPEC reports, "Finding no valid reason to do so, she refused, at which point several plainclothes men who did not identify themselves took over." Then a team of political police moved in, when there were no witnesses left in the lounge. They were hostile, rude, and increasingly violent, roughing her up and throwing her to the floor and separating her from her belongings, including laptop and passport. Having been prevented from boarding the plane, which had taken off already, she was ordered to return home.

"This is the third time this year Bensedrine has had trouble crossing the Tunisian border, and the second time she has received rough treatment at the hands of border police - when attempting to travel by land, sea or air," angrily noted IFEX-TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship. In previous years, Bensedrine has been beaten and abused both in prison and by other people acting under the orders of the authorities. "This is completely outrageous behaviour to be meted out to any law-abiding citizen, and particularly disgraceful that a woman should be treated so poorly at the hands of a group of police officers. Once again we are forced to remind the Tunisian government that it is rapidly losing its reputation as a country that respects women's rights," said Jayasekera.

Bensedrine and her husband Omar Mestiri, managing editor of "Kalima" online newspaper, were turned back by Algerian border police on 18 June 2008 while attempting to cross at the Oum Tboul border near Tabarka, in the northwest. They noticed an increased police presence on the road, including secret police.

In March, Bensedrine and Mestiri received poor treatment upon their arrival in Tunisia from Europe in the port of La Goulette on 3 March 2008. They were held by customs for six hours, during which time Bensedrine was violently attacked, leaving bruises on her body. Her property was confiscated, including cell phones, documents and computer hard discs.

Bensedrine filed a complaint before the courts over the incident in March, but according to lawyer Raouf Ayadi, no enquiry has been opened.

Reached by phone, Bensedrine said, "It was the first time they used such violent force to try to submit me to a full and humiliating body search, and that I was prevented from leaving the country. I had the feeling that they wanted to settle scores with me. I don't know how on earth they are under the illusion that I may represent a threat or a danger."

Members of the TMG demand that Sihem Bensedrine be allowed to cross freely into and out of Tunisia, according to her legal right as a Tunisian citizen. Further, we would like to strongly protest the abusive treatment given to Bensedrine, which we believe to be a result of her outspoken activism in favour of increased human rights and democracy in Tunisia.

Bensedrine, who is also spokesperson of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), is internationally known for her activism, was awarded the 2006 Index on Censorship/Hugo Young Journalism Award for bringing attention to human rights abuses in her home country. She was also awarded the 2008 Danish Peace Award and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) 2004 International Press Freedom Award.

Members of the IFEX-TMG:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), 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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