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Tunisia releases prisoners held over Gafsa protests

The release of 68 prisoners, held for over a year in connection with popular protests last year against unemployment and high living costs in the resource-rich Gafsa region, has been welcomed by Amnesty International. The organization also called on the Tunisian authorities to put an end to the mounting repression against independent journalists, human rights and student activists which has taken place in the wake of last month’s presidential and legislative elections. All 68 prisoners were conditionally released under a presidential pardon issued by President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on Wednesday, to mark the 22nd anniversary of his accession to power on 7 November 1987. Many of those released were prisoners of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Those who breach the conditions attached to their release are likely to be re-detained and required to serve out the remainder of their prison terms or placed under house arrest for the same period. Those released include trade union leaders Adnan Hajji, Bechir Laabidi, Adel Jayar and Tayeb Ben Othman, who were among 38 people sentenced to prison terms of up to eight years on appeal in February 2009 after grossly unfair trials. They were accused of leading protests in Gafsa in the first half of 2008 and which involved demonstrations against unemployment, the cost of living, nepotism and the unfair recruitment practices of the major employer in the region, the Gafsa Phosphate Company. They were also accused of "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". Another 50 of those suspected of being involved in the protests remain in hiding and were tried in their absence. They include France-based human rights activist Mohieddine Cherbib. Fahem Boukadous, a journalist working for al-Hiwar Ettounsi, a Tunisian private television channel, also faces trial if he should be arrested; he was sentenced in his absence to six years in prison after he was convicted on appeal in February 2009 of charges relating to his coverage of the protests. While welcoming the presidential pardon and release of prisoners, Amnesty International urged the Tunisian authorities to extend its application to cover all those who face charges on account of their peaceful involvement in the Gafsa protests, to quash the six-year prison sentence imposed on Fahem Boukadous and to lift the restrictions on released prisoners. The organization also called on the Tunisian authorities to make public the findings of any investigations into the killing by the security forces of two Gafsa protestors last year.