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Tunisian journalist loses 'airport immunity' after award

Naziha Réjiba (OLPEC)

My country’s international airport—as some may not know—has become the scene of the Tunisian regime’s score-settling with its opponents. Opponents are no longer banned from traveling; this is a move to promote the idea that they are “free.” However, if they do travel, they face difficulties at the airport, port, or border crossing in question.

I am one of those who are harassed when traveling from or returning to the country. Nonetheless, compared to other comrades, I can say that I am spoiled at the airport, where I enjoy relative “immunity” in that I am not insulted, threatened, or beaten like the others. Rather, I only experience “light” harassment that often ends with no damage save the moral harm embodied in the horrible feeling of being a second-class citizen deliberately given “special” treatment to humiliate her and make her feel that she is at the mercy of the regime and its apparatus.

On Saturday, November 28, this situation changed and my “airport immunity” was lifted. I was returning from a long and tiring journey to the United States where I was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and granted its annual award.

I hadn’t noticed anything unusual until after I passed the border checkpoint. When I arrived at the baggage claim and customs area, the airport was almost desolate.

Where were all the people? Where were my fellow travelers?

They magically vanished! Instead of my fellow travelers, I was looking at plainclothes police and several customs personnel. I did not feel surprised up until that point, as I was used to having the airport emptied for me so that travelers would not hear my loud protests over the arbitrary actions taken against me.

I took my luggage and headed to the customs checkpoint. A customs officer came and asked me to go to a small room, upon which I immediately realized the function of that room and that I would, for the first time in my life, experience physical inspection.

I protested strongly and asked the officers around me about the reason for this new treatment and refused to enter the room. At that point, a threatening and terrifying ring of police officers surrounded me. The assistant airport director stepped forward and spoke to me rudely. He raised his hand, threatening to hit me, and tried to push me into the room. He said he was applying the “law” to me and “my kind,” uttering the last part with disdain.

Neither my age nor my health would allow me to continue resisting, so I entered the room. I was searched and then went out after nothing was “found” on me.

When I came out, the assistant director and all the policemen had already left. Their task was finished. They did not come with the purpose of searching me for potential drugs but rather they—or, better said: those who sent them—only sought to have me enter that room. But why?

If the intention was to make me aware of the fact that I was no exception to the horror perpetrated by the regime against free writers and human rights activists, I am fully aware of that. Indeed, I continue to receive “anonymous” phone calls that wake me up in the middle of the night delivering insults and threats against me. I have also been exposed to smear campaigns in newspapers and on Web sites. Furthermore, the police surrounded my home for days, as they did with many others.

If the intention was to spoil my joy for receiving the Committee to Protect Journalists’ award and to inform me that I was honored abroad while there was nothing but humiliation [for me] in my country, let it be known that awards only give me joy as much as they are recognition of the existence of writers and journalists in Tunisia who have not been silenced by repression and intimidation. Let it be known that I am still waiting for my true award, which is to see my country blessed with freedom. Let it be known that I was dignified before I entered that pathetic room, and that my feeling of dignity did not decline after I left it. A ring of policemen cannot take away the honor I have received from my readership before anyone else.

If the intention was to remind me of the threat I received over a year ago that retribution will find me, my husband, and my children in treacherous forms that employ, as usual, a state institution, security, or other department, let those people know that I have not forgotten, for it is very difficult to forget them. (I take this opportunity to ask them when they are going to consider doing at least one good thing by which people can remember them). No, I have not forgotten the threat that I am drawing attention to now as I did then. However, it will not stop me from continuing my life; my fate is in God's hands and no one else’s.

Read the original article published on Kalima in Arabic here.

December 15, 2009 5:58 PM ET |

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