Amnesty International is calling on the Tunisian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested and tried for exercising peacefully their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Others should be retried in fair proceedings in line with Tunisia’s international obligations.
The organization issued its appeal after yesterday’s unfair trial proceedings of 38 trade leaders and protestors for their involvement in demonstrations in the Gafsa area.
“The verdict and sentences have been a subversion of justice and they should not be allowed to stand,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.
A Gafsa Court handed down prison terms of up to 10 years against 33 trade union activists and protesters who were accused of leading the unrest against unemployment and high living costs in the first half of this year in the phosphate-rich Gafsa region in south-east Tunisia. Four were tried in absentia.
Charges included “forming a criminal group with the aim of destroying public and private property” and “armed rebellion and assault on officials during the exercise of their duties”. They were among the hundreds arrested after the wave of protests in Gafsa.
“The Tunisian authorities must immediately stop criminalizing social protest. Instead of trying peaceful protesters and trade unionists, the authorities should investigate the allegations of torture previously raised by the defendants,” added Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Amnesty International is concerned that serious violations of fair trial standards have been committed, including that the defence lawyers were not able to present the case of their clients; the defendants were not interrogated in court and the demands of the lawyers that their clients be medically examined for trace of possible torture and to call and cross-examine witnesses were rejected by the court.
Yesterday’s verdict came amid reports of a heavy security presence. Security forces were deployed along the roads leading to the court as well as in main access roads to the city of Gafsa. The roads leading to the court were said to have been barred by the security forces who prevented a number of human rights activists from reaching the court.
“The trial raises yet again questions as to the independence of the judiciary in Tunisia and shows the Tunisian authorities’ determination to quell any independent voices inside the country,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The leader of trade union and spokesperson for the Movement of Social Protest in Gafsa, Adnan Hajji was sentenced, along with six others, to 10 years’ imprisonment in the trial. The rest received prison sentences ranging from two to six years, including at least eight suspended sentences. Journalist Fahem Boukadous and France-based human rights activist Mouheiddine Cherbib, received, respectively, six and two years in absentia. Five others were acquitted and are yet to be released.