Tunisia: Appeal ruling against former presidential adviser ‘a new low’ for freedom of expression

A military appeal court in Tunisia has upheld the conviction on defamation charges of a former presidential adviser and handed him an even harsher punishment, in what Amnesty International called a “new low” for freedom of expression in the country since the ousting of President Ben Ali.  On 4 January, the court in the capital Tunis extended Ayoub Massoudi’s original suspended sentence from four months to one year’s imprisonment, based on a September 2012 conviction for “undermining the reputation of the army” and “defaming a civil servant”. He was also stripped of certain civic rights, including serving in the army, being employed in the civil service, or being able to receive honours or distinctions from the state.The charges stem from Massoudi’s public criticism of the extradition of former Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi from Tunisia to Libya in June 2012.“This even harsher punishment is sending a clear message that the authorities intend to clamp down hard on those critical of the authorities,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International. “This verdict should be quashed immediately; it seeks to punish someone solely for exercising his fundamental right to freedom of expression. In any event, military courts should never be used to try civilians.”Amnesty International said in addition to violating his right to free expression, the fact Massoudi was tried under Tunisia’s military justice system also undermined his right to a fair trial. One of the two officials he was accused of defaming – Tunisia’s Minister of Defence – also heads the High Council of Military Judges, which oversees the appointment, dismissal, discipline and promotion of military judges. The other one is the head of the armed forces, General Rachid Ammar. This raises serious questions about the ability of the military justice system to handle Massoudi’s case in an independent and fair manner.   Amnesty International is also calling on the Tunisian authorities to effectively lift a travel ban that was placed on Massoudi before his trial started. In June 2012, Amnesty International said the extradition of the former Libyan Prime Minister violated international human rights law. “The ruling against Massoudi is the latest indication that the Tunisian authorities’ are narrowing the scope for freedom of expression,” said Hadj Sahraoui.“The authorities must end these attacks on freedom of expression, which was one of the rights that Tunisians fought so hard to defend in the uprising which led to the ousting of former President Ben Ali in January 2011.”