Human rights defenders in Tunisia face diverse forms of harassment by the authorities because of their human rights work. They are put under surveillance and have their telephone lines, internet access and emails interrupted and often blocked.
Many have had their freedom of movement restricted, face reprisals for their stands; some have been physically assaulted by individuals believed to have been acting at the behest of the Tunisian security forces.
Members of human rights organizations have also been under the overt surveillance of security officers, in their efforts to deter and intimidate members and supporters, as well as victims of human rights abuses who may wish to contact these organizations.
Smear campaigns in the state-controlled media are organized to denigrate human rights defenders and to tarnish their reputation. Independent human rights groups and other civil society organizations are denied official registration or face politically motivated legal proceedings which virtually paralyze all their activities.
The latest move of the Tunisian authorities endorsed at cabinet level aims at criminalizing contacts with foreign entities by any Tunisian to "instigate to harm Tunisia's vital interests". This move came shortly after Tunisian human rights defenders met with EU officials and members of parliament in Brussels and Madrid and called on them to press the government to honour its human rights obligations at a time when Tunisia is seeking to upgrade in its relations with the EU.
The situation of Ali Ben Salem epitomizes the plight of human rights activists in Tunisia. He is one of the human rights defenders harassed and intimidated by the Tunisian security forces because of his human rights work.
Ali Ben Salem turned 78 years old on 15 June. Even at his age the harassment goes on unabated.
Since September 2005, State Security officers or people working for them have been permanently posted in front of his house and only allow entry for close family members, after checking their identity.
His telephone line and internet access have been cut since 2005 and he fears his mobile phone calls are tapped. Security officers follow him everywhere and have physically prevented him from entering buildings where meetings on human rights are held.
Ali Ben Salem is a founding member of several human rights organizations, including the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and the Association against Torture in Tunisia (ALTT) Ali Ben Salem hosts in his home the regional office of the Tunisian League for Human Rights in Bizerte.
Ten years ago, Ali Ben Salem was arrested by plain clothes security officers. He was taken to a police station in Tunis, where he was beaten, kicked, and jumped on before being left for dead at a construction site outside Tunis.
In response to a complaint lodged by Ali Ben Salem in 2005, the UN Committee against Torture found that these acts constituted torture and urged the Tunisian authorities to remedy the situation.
Ali Ben Salem is in poor health suffering from serious back and heart problems. The authorities continue to refuse to issue him a new free health care card he is entitled to as veteran of the Tunisia independence war, and to pay his civil servant’s pension, ignoring court orders issued in April 1999.
He has been denied a passport and is facing charges of "spreading false news likely to threaten public order" for a June 2006 public statement denouncing the use of torture in Tunisian prisons.
Image: Tunisian human rights activist Ali Ben Salem. Copyright: Amnesty International
View Amnesty International's birthday card to Ali Ben Salem