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Tunisian government must end harassment of former political prisoners

Amnesty International has called on the Tunisian President to end the daily harassment of former political prisoners ahead of the country's national independence day on 20 March. 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. “Prisoners released under presidential pardons should not be subjected to continuing harassment and intimidation, but should be allowed and enabled to resume their normal lives,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director. Those who overstep their restrictions or offend the authorities in other ways may be quickly returned to prison.   Sadok Chourou, who spent 18 years in prison before he was conditionally released in November 2008, was re-detained a month later after he gave media interviews talking about his experiences in prison and expressed views about the political situation in Tunisia. His conditional release was revoked so that he has to complete one remaining year of his original sentence and he was given an additional one year prison term. He is now due to be released in October 2010. “The whole purpose of the pardon is undermined when former prisoners are placed under such oppressive restrictions that they are unable to obtain work or exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association. This harassment of former prisoners must cease.” A briefing paper released by Amnesty International, Freed but Not Free: Tunisia’s Former Political Prisoners, highlights the plight of former political prisoners who are subjected to severe restrictions and harassment by the security authorities.  These include oppressive police surveillance, being 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. Abdelkarim Harouni, who was placed under oppressive police surveillance following release from prison in November 2007, says it has had a very detrimental effect on his well-being and ability to interact with other people: “This harassment is an attempt to isolate me from society. There’s a climate of fear among my family members, the neighbours and my friends, who do not dare to visit us,” said Abdelkarim Harouni. Abdellatif Bouhajila has been unable to obtain his medical files from the hospital where he was treated while in prison and his hospital appointments have been repeatedly cancelled leaving him without the medical treatment he urgently needs for heart and kidney ailments. Amnesty International is urging the Tunisian government to cease the harassment and intimidation of former political prisoners and allow them to resume their lives as free individuals. The organization is also calling on the Tunisian authorities to release Sadok Chourou and all other prisoners of conscience held for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression immediately and unconditionally, including journalist Taoufik Ben Brik.