A trade union leader and 37 others face trial in Tunisia on Thursday, accused of fomenting unrest during protests earlier this year in the Gafsa region. Adnan Hajji, Secretary General of local office of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) in Redeyef, and his co-accused face charges including “forming a criminal group with the aim of destroying public and private property”.
If convicted, they could face up to more than ten years of imprisonment. At least six of 38 accused are to be tried in their absence.
The phosphate-rich Gafsa region, in south-east Tunisia, was wracked by a wave of popular protests in the first half of this year. They began in the town of Redeyef after the region’s major employer, the Gafsa Phosphate Company, announced the results of a recruitment competition.
These results were denounced as fraudulent by those who were unsuccessful and others, including the UGTT, and the protests, which developed into a more general protest about high unemployment and rising living costs, then spread to other towns as the authorities deployed large numbers of police and other security forces into the region.
Hundreds of protestors were arrested and more than 140 have been charged with offences, some of whom have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms.
Amnesty International has called on the Tunisian government to order an independent investigation into allegations of torture and other abuses by security forces when quelling the protests.
In a letter to Tunisia’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights Béchir Tekkari, Amnesty International called for the authorities to disclose the outcome of an official investigation. The organization said the investigation had been set up after police opened fire on demonstrators on 6 June 2008, killing one man and injuring others, sparking allegations that police had used excessive force.
The letter also detailed cases in which people suspected of organizing or participating in protests are reported to have been detained and tortured by police. The police are accused of forcing them to sign incriminating statements that could be used against them at trial and falsified their arrest dates in official records.