Amnesty International has condemned the conviction of a dissenting Tunisian journalist who has been jailed for six months on trumped up charges after an unfair trial.
Taoufik Ben Brik, a prominent government critic, was sentenced on Thursday on charges of committing violence, damaging property, harming public morality and defamation.
“This is a very disappointing outcome”, said Malcolm Smart, Middle East and North Director at Amnesty International. “Taoufik Ben Brik should not have been prosecuted, let alone convicted and sentenced to a prison term.
“He has been convicted on politically-motivated charges for exercising his right to freedom of expression. He is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Taoufik Ben Brik’s lawyers have been prevented from visiting him since his hearing on 19 November at the Tunis Court of First Instance.
His family were refused permission to visit him on Wednesday – the allotted visitation day – without explanation.
On Thursday, the court delivered its verdict in writing. Taoufik Ben Brik was not brought to the courthouse. He has 10 days to appeal his conviction.
Taoufik Ben Brik denies all the charges against him. He says they have been manufactured by the Tunisian authorities because of his criticism of the government.
During his trial, the court failed to allow his defence lawyers an opportunity to fully present their case or cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
The court also appeared to accept as evidence a statement the authorities allege was freely given by Taoufik Ben Brik in pre-trial detention – but which he says is false and bears a forgery of his signature.
Taoufik Ben Brik appears to have been convicted on account of his criticism of the government and opposition to the recent re-election of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The court hearing took place amid oppressive security conditions. Journalists were barred and only three members of Taoufik Ben Brik’s family were permitted to attend.
Taoufik Ben Brik, who suffers from diabetes and a rare hormonal disorder called Cushing’s Syndrome, for which he needs regular medication, appeared physically weak and was unable to stand throughout the proceedings.
Amnesty International has called on the Tunisian authorities to ensure that Taoufik Ben Brik has full access to his lawyers and family, and has reiterated its call for his release.
“Today’s verdict raises serious questions about the independence and integrity of the judicial process in Tunisia,” said Malcolm Smart. “The President now needs to step in and order Taoufik Ben Brik’s immediate and unconditional release. He has the power. He should use it.”