Activist on trial for denouncing pollution in Tunisia must be released

Amnesty International has called for the release of a human rights activist who went on trial this week for making a video about pollution in Tunisia and posting it on Facebook. Zouheir Makhlouf was denied bail when he appeared in court on Tuesday. He appeared weak and unable to speak or stand; his lawyer said his client had been on hunger strike for over 10 days in protest at his arrest and detention. Makhlouf was charged with “harming or disturbing others via the public telecommunications networks” and could face up to two years in prison if convicted. He was remanded in custody until the next court session on 24 November. The court hearing took place amid a heavy security presence, with journalists and human rights defenders physically barred from entering the court. One woman journalist, Sihem Ben Sedrine, was pushed, beaten and insulted by state security officials. Zouheir Makhlouf was arrested in 20 October after he published a video about pollution, lack of infrastructure and basic services in the industrial zone of the city of Nabeul, 60km southeast of the capital Tunis. Following the video’s publication, one of the Nabuel industrial workers – who was shown in the film criticizing pollution and unsatisfactory working conditions – filed an official complaint. He alleged that Zouheir Makhlouf had not obtained permission to show him in the film. It appears he made this claim after Tunisian security officials pressured him to do so. Another individual, who was reportedly willing to confirm that Zouheir Makhlouf did obtain the worker’s permission, is said to have changed his mind and agreed to become a prosecution witness after he was threatened by security officials. “Zouheir Makhlouf is a prisoner of conscience who is being prosecuted for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” says Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director. “He must be immediately and unconditionally released and the charge against him must be dropped.”