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Tunisia: Authorities accused of 'sabotaging' human rights groups - new report

Human rights activists spied on during doctor’s appointments and funerals, attacked and prevented from meeting

The Tunisian authorities should end their subversion of human rights organisations and dissenting groups by infiltrating them and provoking turmoil, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.

The 20-page report, Independent Voices Stifled in Tunisia (pdf), documents the daily struggle faced by Tunisians who criticise the authorities, including the infiltration of human rights groups and the harassment of individual activists.

Last August, for example, the independent leadership of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists was overrun by government supporters after refusing to endorse the candidacy of President Ben ‘Ali in run-up to the October 2009 presidential and legislative elections. A new board was elected and quickly endorsed the Tunisian president’s candidacy.

Amnesty’s report also cites the example of the Tunisian League for Human Rights which, since it was legally forced to open up its membership in 1992, has been deadlocked by disputes apparently instigated by new members close to the Tunisian ruling party. Meanwhile, the Association of Tunisian Judges is now effectively run by government supporters following its takeover by them.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

 “The disruption of human rights organisations by the Tunisian authorities and the fact that so many independent organisations have now fallen victim to coups staged by government supporters is a pattern that we cannot afford to ignore.

“These sabotage tactics appear to be sanctioned at the highest levels in Tunisia.  Human rights activists and those who dissent are accused of being unpatriotic and of relinquishing the honour of belonging to Tunisia, before being harassed and intimidated.”

The Tunisian authorities have also blocked official registration of opposition and human rights organisations, leaving them in a lengthy legal limbo unable to meet or operate legally under Tunisian law.

The country’s Penal Code was also amended last month, stifling criticism of Tunisia’s human rights record from abroad by criminalising the actions of people who contact foreign bodies pursuing objectives that are considered harmful to Tunisia’s ‘economic security’.

The harassment of individual human rights activists in Tunisia is also widespread, said Amnesty. Human rights activists are monitored by security officers at home and at work, followed to doctor’s appointments and even to funerals. Amnesty has documented a catalogue of incidents ranging from physical assault to prosecution of activists based on trumped-up charges.

Ali Ben Salem, 78, has been continually harassed and intimidated by the Tunisian authorities because he is a long-standing critic of Tunisia’s human rights record.  He is a founding member of both the Association for the Fight against Torture in Tunisia and the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, and successfully lodged a complaint against the Tunisian authorities before the UN in November 2007.

He is in poor health, with heart problems and continues to suffer the effects of the torture he endured in 2000, when he was arrested, beaten, sprayed with tear gas and left for dead at a construction site near Tunis. He is now unable to pay for medical treatment as the authorities have blocked his civil service pension.

The Tunisian government has recently hired a US public relations firm and launched a public relations campaign to counter their image as human rights abusers and portray the country as foreign investment-friendly.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui added:

“Instead of spending so much time, money and effort on massaging their image, the Tunisian authorities should be using these resources to effectively address the many human rights abuses in the country. Tunisia’s international partners must wake up to the fact that the space for human rights in Tunisia is shrinking fast.”

Independent Voices Stifled in Tunisia (pdf)

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