Press release
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Control over the justice system and the persecution of human rights defenders are two pillars of state repression in Tunisia, human rights organizations said today.

In releasing the French edition of their report on the plight of human rights defenders in Tunisia, Human Rights Watch and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also endorsed the courageous open letter written earlier this month by Tunis judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui. In that letter, Judge Yahyaoui deplored that judges in Tunisia are "obliged to render verdicts dictated to them by the executive authorities." Following release of his letter, Judge Yahyaoui was promptly suspended from his post, a decision that the rights groups said should be reversed.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint program of
the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).

The report is being released on the occasion of a press conference convened in Paris by four European Parliament members - Harlem Desir, Olivier Dupuis, Roselyne Vaschetta, Helene Flautre - who recently visited Tunisia. This press conference takes place on 26 July 2001 at 11 am at the Information Office of the European Parliament (288 Boulevard Saint Germain, 75007 Paris).

In the report, Tunisie: Le procès contre la ligue des droits de l’Homme: un affront à tous les militants, Human Rights Watch and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders expose the government’s utilization of the courts to impede human rights activity. On June 21, the Tunis Appeals Court affirmed a lower court decision voiding the internal elections of the Tunisian Human Rights League, which brought into the executive committee a dynamic group of activists determined to expose and denounce abuses. In a seeming paradox, the Appeals Court ordered the same committee to organize new elections. Since the Appeals Court decision, the League’s executive committee has persisted in criticizing human rights violations, prompting a warning from the Ministry of Interior that it was proscribed from carrying out any activity other than organizing new elections.

The other leading human rights organization, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), remains illegal pursuant to a 1999 decision by the Ministry of Interior rejecting its application for a license. The CNLT appealed this decision more than two years ago. But in a sign that this review process is not independent, the tribunal has not responded to the CNLT’s appeal.

For information contact:
Driss El Yazami, (French and Arabic), Patrick Baudouin (French), FIDH, (33-1) 43 55 25 18
Eric Sottas (French, English and Spanish) and Laurence Cuny (id.), OMCT, (41-2) 2 809 49 39
Hanny Megally, Human Rights Watch (English and Arabic) (1-212)-216-1230

Tunisian courts continue to restrict and imprison individual members of the CNLT. Today marks one month in detention for CNLT spokeswoman Sihem Ben Sedrine, on charges of defamation and disseminating "false news" in connection with her criticism of the Tunisian judiciary. Tunisian law, in violation of the right to free speech, provides prison terms for persons convicted of these offenses. The judge investigating Ben Sedrine’s case has compounded that violation by using his discretion to place her in pretrial detention.

CNLT member Moncef Marzouki is also a victim of judicial arbitrariness. The one-year prison sentence he faces after being convicted of defamation and membership in an illegal association, namely the CNLT, is currently being appealed as too lenient by the state prosecutor. On June 24, the Tunis Appeals Court postponed the case until September 29 on the anomalous grounds that the original verdict was missing from Marzouki’s dossier. This delay keeps the risk of prison hanging over Marzouki while authorities use the pending case as a pretext to prevent him from traveling abroad.

"Unimpeded human rights monitors and independent judges are two prerequisites for safeguarding the rights of citizens," Human Rights Watch and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said. "The government of Tunisia should be encouraging both, not sanctioning them."

The organizations have sent observers to attend numerous trials in Tunisia over the past decade.

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