Hospitalized Tunisian journalist facing incarceration

Amnesty International is calling on the Tunisian authorities not to imprison ailing journalist Fahem Boukadous, after a court upheld his four-year prison sentence over his reporting of 2008 protests against unemployment and high living costs. Fahem Boukadous, who is currently in hospital suffering from severe asthma, was convicted of “belonging to a criminal association”, “taking part in a group established to prepare or commit an attack against people or property” and “spreading information liable to disrupt public order” over his coverage of protests in the Gafsa area for a satellite television network. “In the coming few hours, the police might come and take me out of the hospital. I am an opinion holder and a defender of rights. I am not scared of the arrest and the prison. What concerns me is my deteriorating health,” he told Amnesty International. His appeal against his conviction before the Court of Appeals, in Gafsa, failed in a hearing on 6 July.   Fahem Boukadous himself was too sick too attend, having been hospitalized since 2 July with breathing problems. If Fahem Boukadous is imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression. “These hearings were little more than a show trial,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. “Fahem Boukadous was one of many caught up in the crackdown following the 2008 Gafsa protests. “The defence lawyers were hindered at every step, denied the right to call and cross-examine witnesses and in some cases prevented from even addressing the court. The Tunisian courts have piled injustice upon injustice.” Fahem Boukadous has been in and out of hospital since April 2010 with breathing difficulties. Amnesty International is concerned that his imprisonment may have a seriously detrimental impact on his health, and that he may not have access to an adequate medical care if sent to prison. His absence from the Court of Appeals, on grounds of ill-health, meant that his defence lawyer was also not permitted to make a statement to the court.   A number of defence documents were lost in the post before the session, further hindering Fahem Boukadous’ right to an adequate defence. His lawyer, who has seen a receipt showing that the documents were sent, believes that the documents may have been lost deliberately. His lawyer told Amnesty International that it’s about more than just lost documents: “This is not a battle for freedom, it is a battle for his life”. Fahem Boukadous reported on popular protests against unemployment and high living costs in Gafsa, south-west Tunisia, in the first half of 2008. Fahem Boukadous went into hiding in June 2008 to avoid arrest in the crackdown following the unrest. In December 2008 he was sentenced in his absence to six years’ imprisonment for inciting unrest, upheld on appeal in February 2009. Other prisoners detained in connection with the protests, including leading trade unionists sentenced at the same trial, were granted a conditional release following a presidential pardon on 4 November 2009. Fahem Boukadous was found guilty upon retrial in January 2010 and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. All of these hearings violated basic international standards for fair trial. “Tuesday’s session before the Gafsa Court of Appeals was the judicial gloss over an injustice. Tunisians yet again received a chilling warning that if they speak out or simply report independently from the government line, they face serious consequences”, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.