20 June 2007
Tunisia: Suffocating Free Speech

Optimists wanted to believe that the election of the Tunisian activist Souhayr Belhassen as president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) on 26 April 2007 would benefit freedom of speech in her native country.

She herself (see APN interview at http://www.cctvua.com/articlesv2.php?id=1139) wanted to see a positive signal in the congress recently held for the first time in four years by the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights to celebrate its 30th anniversary; especially following the ban on all League meetings for over four years.

The weak glimmer of hope did not last for long. The building housing the headquarters of the CNLT (National Council for Liberties in Tunisia) has been surrounded night and day by a large police force since May 18th. The police are preventing both CNLT members and Kalima journalists who share the same offices from entering the building.

The joint statement by the Tunisian civil society below denounces the suppression of freedom and the repression suffered by those who dare to protest. APN is soon to publish an interview with Omar Mestiri, publisher of Kalima, and freedom of speech activist, giving his point of view on the situation in Tunisia.


Joint statement by the Tunisian Civil Society

On 6 June 2007 a delegation of civil society representatives tried to enter the officies of CNLT, which it shares with the Kalima newspaper, as a sign of solidarity. The delegation members included Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights the (LTDH), Ali Ben Salem, president of the Bizerte section of the LTDH, as well as Abdeljabbar Maddahi and Mohamed Ben Said, two other bureau members, Mondher Cherni, representative of the Association Against Torture in Tunisia, Dr Khelil Ezzaouia and Zakia Dhifaoui, Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL) leaders and the journalists Lotfi Hajji, Mahmoud Dhaouadi, Slim Boukhdhir and Sahbi Smara.

They were also accompanied by leading members of the CNLT.

However an impressive number of plain clothes police officers blocked their path when they got to the Avenue de la Liberté in Tunis. The police prevented the delegation from entering the street leading to CNLT offices, despite their lively protests.

Since 18 May 2007 CNLT's headquarters has been surrounded day and night by a large political police force, denying CNLT members and Kalima journalists access to their offices. During this period the police have evicted the group by force from inside the building and have even banned them from using the adjoining streets. The police have also forbidden CNLT members and Kalima journalists from gathering in nearby cafes; threatening them with violence should they refuse to obey. At no time did these police officers agree to prove their identity or produce any legal document justifying their actions, in spite of repeated demands.

A general climate of repression, which is especially strong with regard to activities of the the civil society groups the background to these events. This repression is characterised by:

o       Systemic obstruction of the LTDH's ordinary activities and the completely arbitrary closure of its regional branch offices,

o       A ban on the use of public spaces and police surveillance of the ATFD offices,

o      Denial of justice to elected members of the Association of Tunisian magistrates seeking to resolve their dispute with  the putschist group forced upon them by the Ministry for Justice. The former are currently deprived of the right to organise themselves independently,

o      Obstacles blocking the entrance of the Tunisian branch of Amnesty International, which was prevented from holding its annual general meeting at the end of June after its contract to rent a room in the Hotel Amilcar was cancelled for no reason,

o       The 1 June ban on all the members of the International Association to Support Political Prisoners preventing them from accessing their offices, which are surrounded by a heavy police force,

o       The police barricade erected on 2 June on all roads leading to Gaafour (120 km from Tunis) with a view to prevent  civil society representatives from travelling to the cemetery where the leftist activist Nabil Barakati is buried to mark the annual commemoration of his death by torture,

o       Repeated police violence against the journalist Slim Boukhdhir

o       The use of violence against Abderrahman Hedhili, a leading member of the LTDH, and Mongi Ben Salah, a member of CNLT, on 9 June by the chief of the Monastir district police, while the two men were on their way to a solidarity meeting with striking union members.

o        The arbitrary 26-month extension of the banishment of journalist Abdallah Zouari, who has been held in administrative detention for five years in Zarzis.

The undersigned NGOs fully support the CNLT with regard to the persecution of its activists and demand that the authorities:

o       End the siege of the offices of CNLT and the Kalima newspaper, and respect CNLT's right to legal activities, like all  other NGOs deprived of this right,

o       Remove all obstacles to the activities of independent civil society and stop harassing civil society defenders, journalists and judges.

- The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH)

- The Association of Democratic Women (ATFD )

- Association Against Torture in Tunisia (ALT)

- International Association to Support Political Prisoners (AISPP)

- Tunisian Centre for the Independence of Justice (CIJT)

- Observatory for Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC)