A Tunisian appeal court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of workers and trade union activists, who had lodged an appeal against their conviction and sentence in December 2008, in connection with the Gafsa protests.
Trade unionists Adnan Hajji and Bechir Laabidi as well as 36 others were accused of leading unrest against unemployment and high living costs in the phosphate-rich Gafsa region of south-east Tunisia earlier in 2008. They were among hundreds arrested.
"We urge the Tunisian president to intervene and order the release of those sentenced for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, in a peaceful manner," said Malcolm Smart, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director.
Most sentences were reduced on appeal, including from 10 years to eight years for Adnan Hajji and Bechir Laabidi. Five others, who were released after the decision of the court of first instance, were convicted by the Appeal Court following an appeal by the prosecution.
Charges against all 38 included "forming a criminal group with the aim of destroying public and private property" and "armed rebellion and assault on officials during the exercise of their duties".
The health of Bechir Laabidi severely deteriorated while in detention. After repeated calls by his lawyers and relatives, he was later transferred to hospital in Tunis. He was present during the whole hearing, which lasted all Tuesday day and night, with only two short intermissions, and which ended early Wednesday morning.
Amnesty International voiced concern that serious violations of fair trial standards were committed during the session at the Gafsa Appeal Court on Wednesday. While the defence lawyers were able to present the case of their clients, they were denied the right to call and cross examine witnesses. Demands of the lawyers that their clients be medically examined for traces of possible torture were rejected by the court and torture allegations disregarded.
"Yet again, the Appeal Court has failed to provide a remedy for government critics whose trial before the Lower Court was badly flawed and unfair," said Malcolm Smart. "It is time that Tunisia's courts give attention to upholding the basic guarantees accorded to all defendants under both Tunisian law and Tunisia’s international human rights obligations."
The Gafsa region was wracked by a wave of popular protests in the first half of 2008. They began in the town of Redeyef after the region's major employer, the Gafsa Phosphate Company, announced the results of a recruitment competition.
The results were denounced as fraudulent by those who were unsuccessful and others, including the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). The protests developed into a more general protest about high unemployment and rising living costs and spread to other towns as the authorities deployed large numbers of police and other security forces into the region.
Amnesty International considers those sentenced to be prisoners of conscience and has called for their immediate and unconditional release. It has also requested that others be retried in fair proceedings, in accordance with the fair trial guarantees enshrined in Tunisian law and Tunisia's international obligations.