Tunisian trade unionists’ appeal postponed

The appeal hearing of 33 Tunisian workers and trade union activists has been postponed until 3 February. Trade union leader Adnan Hajji and 32 others were due to have their case heard on Tuesday.

A court in Tunisia handed down sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment against the 33 in December after an unfair trial. Trade union leader Adnan Hajji and 37 others were accused of leading unrest in the phosphate-rich Gafsa region of south-east Tunisia earlier in 2008.

Amnesty International condemned the prison sentences as a “travesty of justice” and called on the Tunisian authorities to release all those arrested and tried for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Others should be retried in fair proceedings in line with Tunisia’s international obligations.

Four of the accused were not in custody and were tried in absentia. Of the 38, seven received 10 years’ imprisonment. These include trade union leader and spokesperson for the Movement of Social Protest in Gafsa Adnan Hajji and trade unionist Bechir Labidi.

The health of Bechir Labidi severely deteriorated while in detention. After repeated calls by his lawyers and relatives, he was later transferred to hospital where he is said to be handcuffed to his bed.

The rest received prisons sentences ranging from two to six years, including 9 suspended sentences. Journalist Fahem Boukadous and France-based human rights activist Mouheiddine Cherbib received, respectively, six and two years prison sentences in their absence. Five other defendants were acquitted and released.

Charges 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.” They were among the hundreds arrested after a wave of protests against unemployment and high living costs that wracked the phosphate-rich Gafsa region in south-east Tunisia in the first half of this year.