Tunisian journalist freed after 15 years; another still held

New York, February 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes Sunday’s release of Tunisian journalist Hamadi Jebali but calls again for Tunisian authorities to release writer and human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou, who has been jailed solely for expressing his views.

Jebali, the longest-serving imprisoned journalist in the Arab world, was among 1,600 of prisoners granted pardons by President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on Saturday. Several dozen of those released belong to the banned Islamist party Al-Nahda.

Jebali, former editor of Al-Fajr, the now-defunct weekly newspaper of Al-Nahda, spent more than 15 years in prison in Tunisia. He was first jailed in 1991 for publishing an article calling for the abolition of military tribunals in Tunisia. Jebali was tried by a military court in 1992, along with 279 others accused of belonging to Al-Nahda, and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. International human rights groups monitoring the mass trial concluded that the proceedings fell far below international standards of justice.

“I now have the feeling that 16 years in prison elapsed in a moment,” Jebali told CPJ after his release. He thanked CPJ and other international groups for campaigning for his release.

CPJ remains very concerned about Abbou, who is serving a prison term of three and a half years because of an Internet article that allegedly “defamed the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb public order.” In the banned Tunisian news Web site Tunisnews, Abbou compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to conditions in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib. He was arrested by Tunisian secret police on March 1, 2005, and his sentence was upheld on appeal in June.
On Sunday, a public prosecutor wrote to the Tunis section of the Bar Association calling for “the liquidation of the assets of Mohamed Abbou’s law office,” the privately owned newspaper Le Temps reported.

Independent journalists in Tunisia are routinely harassed by police and security services; many have been placed under surveillance and had their phone lines monitored or arbitrarily cut, according to CPJ research. Others have faced trumped-up legal charges in retaliation for their published criticisms. In September 2005, the government barred the newly formed independent Syndicate of Tunisian Journalist from holding its inaugural annual congress.

Despite these attacks on the press, the Tunisian government has purported that it upholds press freedoms, calling them a “tangible reality” in the country. The pardons of Jebali and the others, in fact, come at a time when the Tunisian government is seeking to bolster its international image. It is preparing for next month’s 50th anniversary of independence from France, and it is gearing up for talks with the European Union. Relations with the EU soured during the World Summit for the Information Society in November when French and Swiss journalists were assaulted and a high-ranking German diplomat was harassed. CPJ detailed the problems during the summit in the special report, “Night in Tunisia.”

“The release of Hamadi Jebali does not change the fact that President Ben Ali’s government is far out of step with international press freedom standards,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “The government needs to release Mohamed Abbou immediately and put an end to its overall campaign of press harassment and repression