Health of imprisoned journalist on hunger strike deteriorating

New York, April 22, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about the health of Zouhair Yahyaoui, an imprisoned Tunisian Internet journalist who began a hunger strike on March 29 to protest his prison conditions.

According to a family member who visited Yahyaoui last week, the journalist was placed, naked, in solitary confinement for two days beginning March 27 and started his hunger strike the day he came out of confinement. Yahyaoui is protesting the confiscation of his reading and writing materials, a lack of proper medical care, and the poor quality of his food.

The journalist has become extremely weak and has lost a great deal of weight. His family cannot bring anything to him, and all their meetings with him are closely monitored.

Previously, in January, Yahyaoui went on another hunger strike for two weeks to protest his imprisonment.

Yahyaoui, who ran the online publication TUNeZINE, has been in prison since June 4, 2002, when plainclothes police officers detained him at the Internet café where he worked. On June 20, a Tunis court sentenced Yahyaoui to 28 months in prison after finding him guilty of intentionally publishing false information, a violation of Article 306 of the country’s Penal Code.

The charge stemmed from statements on a chat forum and articles posted on TUNeZINE that criticized the ruling regime, including a piece that lambasted the May 26, 2002, constitutional referendum in which 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes to allow President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to run for a fourth term as president.

Yahyaoui was also found guilty of using stolen communication lines to post his Web site, a violation of section 84 of the Telecommunications Code. In July 2002, an appeals court upheld the ruling but reduced Yahyaoui’s sentence to 24 months.

“The humiliating treatment that Yahyaoui has endured in prison compounds the terrible injustice already done to him by the Tunisian authorities,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “We demand that he be released immediately and unconditionally and allowed to resume his work as a journalist without the threat of government punishment.”

Another Tunisian journalist, Hamadi Jebali, also went on a hunger strike in January to protest his imprisonment. Jebali, former editor of Al-Fajr, the weekly newspaper of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda party, was sentenced to 16 years in prison by a military court in Bouchoucha on August 28, 1992. He was tried along with 279 others accused of belonging to Al- Nahda. Jebali was convicted of “aggression with the intention of changing the nature of the state” and “membership in an illegal organization.”

During his testimony, Jebali denied the charges against him and displayed evidence that he had been tortured while in custody. Jebali has been in jail since January 1991, when he was sentenced to one year in prison after Al-Fajr published an article calling for the abolition of military courts in Tunisia. CPJ and other human rights organizations have repeatedly called on Tunisian authorities to release Jebali.