Last month I wrote about the Chinese cyber-dissident Shi Tao. Another country that has developed repressive measures against writers and dissidents who express their views online is Tunisia. In 2005, around twenty sites, not considered illegal or harmful under international law, were reportedly blocked for their political and information content. We can choose how to access our email from any number of options, but in Tunisia email services like Hotmail, which allow one to have an anonymous email address, have been rendered inaccessible. Consequently, Internet users are forced to sign up to accounts that the authorities can more easily monitor.
In LR October 2002 Siobhan Dowd wrote about the late Zouhair Yahyaoui, whose Internet site and e-magazine, both critical of the authorities, earned him a prison sentence. Another human rights activist to fall foul of the Tunisian regime, by voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet, is Mohammed Abbou. A human rights lawyer, Abbou was arrested on 1 March 2005 for an article, published on the Internet nine months earlier, that denounced torture in Tunisia.
Human rights organisations around the world were shocked at the timing, given that Tunisia was due to host Phase II of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from 15 to 17 November, and Abbou’s arrest completely contravened the summit’s principles. The WSIS Declaration of Principles specifically refers to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression. The summit was set up as a forum to debate the digital revolution and ways to overcome the ‘digital divide’ – the difference between the info-rich and the info-poor. Amnesty had hoped that as host country of the summit (selected as such by the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations) Tunisia would address its ‘appalling record’ by relaxing its controls on free speech and peaceful association.
At the end of April (2005), Abbou was sentenced to two years in prison, on charges that stemmed from an incident at a conference in 2002, in which the lawyer allegedly physically attacked a female lawyer, who apparently was close to the government. Reportedly no evidence was presented, apart from an unsigned medical certificate, and the court refused to hear witnesses to the incident, who were willing to testify that no assault took place.
In addition, Abbou was sentenced by a criminal court to eighteen months for ‘having published information that would disturb public order’ and for ‘insulting the judiciary’. This was for an article published on the Tunisnews website in August 2004 (www.tunisnews.net), in which the lawyer denounced torture in Tunisian prisons and compared it to the abuses carried out by US soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The website was blocked but Tunisians managed to read the article as an email sent by friends and relatives living abroad. However, it is widely believed that Abbou’s imprisonment is in retaliation for a February 2005 article posted on the Tunisnews website, in which Abbou ironically compared the Tunisian president Ben Ali to the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
The sentences were upheld on 10 June, although the trial had been described as grossly unfair by local and international human rights groups and by Western diplomats resident in Tunis. To make matters worse, the lawyer was imprisoned in the city of Le Kef, near the Tunisian–Algerian border, two hundred kilometres away from his home in Tunis where his wife and children live.
Reporters Without Borders issued a damning statement last September: ‘In taking Mohamed Abbou hostage, the government is seeking to silence human rights activists, by punishing one of its emblematic figures to make an example of a man who has always acted free of charge in cases involving offences of opinion or human rights.’ They also point out that Abbou was one of the few lawyers prepared to act in corruption cases involving those close to the family of President Ben Ali.
A coalition of fourteen organisations, all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, was set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run-up to and following the WSIS. Known as the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG), the members organised a series of fact-finding missions to Tunisia. They saw the imprisonment of Abbou as ‘directly linked to Tunisian government efforts to suppress dissent in the run up to the WSIS’. In their most recent report they conclude that Abbou’s treatment is ‘a chilling blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary’.
Abbou and his wife Samia embarked on a hunger strike at the end of July 2005 to draw international attention to his incarceration and to protest at the ‘repression inflicted on those who voice their dissent in Tunisia’, but, outside the usual campaigning groups’ network, this story is barely reported.
Human rights organisations remain concerned that Abbou’s lawyers have been denied permission on several occasions to visit him in prison. He is reportedly held in degrading conditions that breach international codes on the treatment of prisoners.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Mohammed Abbou to:
Président Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Président de la République
Fax: 00 216 71 744 721
Update: on 22 January 2006, following an international outcry, the court presiding over the case of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk decided not to proceed with the case.