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RSF fears "political manipulation" behind case of jailed journalist

(RSF/IFEX) - The second hearing in the trial of imprisoned online journalist and human rights activist Zouhaïer Makhlouf took place on 24 November 2009 in Grombalia, in the northeastern province of Nabeul. He faces a possible two-year jail sentence on a charge of "causing harm to another person by means of public communication networks" under article 86 of the telecommunications law.

Makhlouf was arrested on 20 October after posting a video report on the Internet about environmental, economic and social problems in an industrial area of Nabeul. His conditional release was rejected during the first hearing on 3 November, which lasted just eight minutes.

"We call on the authorities to abandon this trial, which makes no sense," Reporters Without Borders said. "The prosecution case has been completely fabricated, as it was in journalist Taoufik Ben Brik's trial, the verdict of which is to be issued on 26 November. The charges against Makhlouf are absurd and contradictory."

The police initially charged Makhlouf with pretending to be a journalist and making an unauthorised report in the Nabeul industrial area. In fact, Makhlouf obtained the consent of all the people he filmed and, since he did not film any military area, he did not need an official permit.

The authorities held the 3 November hearing behind closed doors and told the police to keep journalists out of the courtroom. Makhlouf tried to raise the real reason for the trial, namely a political desire to silence opposition journalists, but the presiding judge insisted that the case limit itself to the substance of the charges, namely whether he had permission to film and a complaint filed by one of the interviewees, a local potter called Mourad Ladhib.

Although it is clear from the video that Ladhib was interviewed willingly, he subsequently filed a complaint claiming that he was filmed without his consent and that the video defamed him. But the court will not be allowed to view the video as the prosecution has not included it in its evidence, despite the fact that it is the alleged cause of the "harm" to Ladhib.

Reporters Without Borders is surprised by the speed with which this case is being heard as hundreds of others have taken ages to come to trial. "This reinforces the impression that the case is being manipulated politically."

Makhlouf has been contacted and threatened several times by Ladhib and has filed a complaint against him. His lawyers have been having difficulty visiting him in Mornaguia prison since his arrest. The latest instance of this was on 21 November, when one of his lawyers, Najet Labidi, was denied the right of visit under "directives" given by the prison authorities.

Makhlouf went on a hunger strike the day after his arrest in protest against his detention but fortunately called it off on 10 November. But his health deteriorated during the hunger strike as a result of his diabetes and Mornaguia prison's refusal to allow him proper medical treatment.

His wife also went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the fact that the police had surrounded their home.

The Tunisian authorities meanwhile blocked access to the website of the Doha-based satellite TV station Al Jazeera on 26 October after it posted a report about arrests of government opponents during the previous day's presidential and parliamentary elections.

On 28 October, three days after the elections, several attempts were made to break into the home of Moudi Zouabi, the correspondent of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper "Al Quds Al Arabi" and the website of the Dubai-based satellite TV station Al Arabiya.

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