Human rights activist banned from leaving Tunisia

A human rights activist and former prisoner of conscience has been denied permission to leave Tunisia for the seventh time since his release from prison in July 2007.

Lawyer Mohamed Abbou was on his way to London for a conference organized by Amnesty International. Security officers at Tunis Airport passport control prevented him from leaving the country. He received no explanation and it was suggested that he should not try to travel outside the country again.

This was the second time he has been prevented from travelling this week, as, on Tuesday, he had already been stopped from boarding a flight to the Netherlands to attend meetings with Amnesty International.

“Mohamed Abbou is being held hostage in his own country in what seems to be a concerted campaign by the authorities to punish him for his human rights work,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

In April 2005, the 4th Criminal Chamber of the Court of First Instance in Tunis sentenced Mohammed Abbou to three and a half years in prison. He was sentenced to 18 months for denouncing torture in Tunisia in an article he posted on the internet in 2004 and to two years for allegedly assaulting Dalila Mrad, a female lawyer, in June 2002.

International observers, including one from Amnesty International, declared that Abbou’s April trial and subsequent appeal, were not fair and violated a number of fair trial guarantees. These included the right of defence, as the court refused to listen to defence witnesses and his lawyers were not allowed to adequately represent him.

Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience solely detained for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and has campaigned for his release.

On 28 November 2005, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Mohammed Abbou’s detention was arbitrary and in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It called on the Tunisian government to bring the situation of Mohammed Abbou into line with international standards.

Article 12 of the ICCPR, to which Tunisia is a party, guarantees freedom of movement, including the right to leave one’s own country. Since his release from prison after serving 28 months of his sentence, Abbou has repeatedly been prevented from leaving Tunisia. This is on account of the “conditional” nature of his release. Although he has been released early, his prison term would not have lasted beyond September 2008.

“The case of Mohamed Abbou is symptomatic of many cases of human rights defenders in Tunisia who are subjected to frequent harassment and intimidation by the security apparatus,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“We urge the Tunisian government to desist from such arbitrary behaviour and lift the travel ban on Abbou and to allow him to travel abroad in pursuit of his human rights work.”

Human rights defenders and organizations alike operate in a climate of harassment, intimidation, interference, constant surveillance and sometimes physical violence by the Tunisian authorities.