Tunisia attempts media black-out on human rights violations

Amnesty International has condemned the Tunisian authorities for effectively barring two human rights organizations from presenting their reports on the harassment of former political prisoners to the media this week.According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), journalists were prevented from attending a press conference on Wednesday in the capital city Tunis to launch a report on repression of former political prisoners in Tunisia.Security forces also stopped journalists and human rights activists from attending a press conference on Monday in Tunis, to launch a report by the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP) on the same issue.The incidents coincide with the publication by Amnesty International of a briefing paper, Freed but Not Free: Tunisia’s Former Political Prisoners which highlights the relentless harassment of hundreds of former political prisoners freed after unfair trials and years of prison in harsh conditions.”Rather than addressing the ongoing concerns raised by national and international NGOs, the Tunisian authorities have opted instead to silence them,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme. “The authorities have shown to the world a reality already well known to Tunisians and have provided this week another demonstration of their ruthless practices”.”They have denied the NGOs the use of venues or prevented independent journalists from reporting on the two publications and the dire situation of former political prisoners. This shows the government’s unwillingness to face the facts and end the denial that human rights violations are routine in Tunisia.”Former political prisoners in Tunisia are subjected to oppressive police surveillance, required to report regularly to the police and repeatedly called in for police questioning, and re-arrest,  following their release from prison. Some have been denied access to medical care. Many have also been banned from travelling outside Tunisia and are not permitted to move freely within the country.Not a single journalist was able to attend the HRW press conference to launch A Larger Prison: Repression of Former Political Prisoners in Tunisia on Wednesday.The launch was due to take place in a hotel but all hotels where HRW had booked a conference room subsequently had “no room” available and withdrew their offers. As to the suite booked by HRW it was mysteriously flooded.The Tunisian authorities had informed HRW officials that the authorities did not want the news conference to proceed. A launch was instead held at a law firm in Tunis amidst heavy police presence.Journalists invited to the conference phoned to say that they were being prevented from leaving their homes or entering Tunis. On Monday, many journalists and activists, including members of AISPP, trying to get to the launch of the organization’s report, Citizens Under Siege: Administrative Control in Tunisia were prevented from doing so.Journalists and activists Lotfi Hajji, Lotfi Hidouri, Ismail Debara, and Faouzi Sadkaoui, were followed as they left the office of the AISSP and were prevented by about 10 security officers in plain clothes from entering the offices of the newspaper, al-Mawkif, where the launch was taking place. Lotfi Hidouri was pushed away by one officer and none of them entered the newspaper’s office. “The recent events show that the Tunisian authorities are determined to implement a total black-out on all critical voices or those exposing its poor human rights record,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.Hundreds of political activists have been imprisoned in Tunisia since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987, including prisoners of conscience and others sentenced after unfair trials, reflecting the authorities’ intolerance of dissent. Many have been released from prison on previous national days under presidential pardon. Such releases are generally only conditional, with former prisoners made subject to stifling restrictions which prevent them from obtaining paid employment or leading normal lives, including intensive surveillance and harassment by security officials.Amnesty International has urged the Tunisian government to cease the harassment and intimidation of former political prisoners and to allow them to resume their lives as free individuals.The organization has also called for the release of all prisoners of conscience held for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.