Treatment of jailed Tunisian writer draws deep concern

New York, March 31, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by the mistreatment and harassment of imprisoned Tunisian writer and human rights lawyer Muhamed Abbou.

Abbou was so weak that he could not stand up during a brief visit with family members on Thursday, his wife, Samia, said in an interview with CPJ. “He told us that he was seriously ill and he had been denied proper medical care,” she said. “He said he is forced to share a cell with four criminal thugs who he believes have been instructed by the prison administration to harass him day and night.”

Abderrazak Kilani, a Tunisian Bar Association board member, told CPJ that Mohamed Abbou was assaulted by prison guards on Thursday. Mohamed Abbou has been on hunger strike since March 11 to protest the deteriorating conditions of his imprisonment and police harassment of his family.

“It looks like they have instructions to destroy Abbou physically and morally. Sadly, we seem to be closer to the law of the jungle than the rule of law,” said Kilani, who himself has been stopped and harassed several times by police while driving Samia Abbou and her son to the prison in the city of Le Kef, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) west of Tunis.

Abbou was arrested by Tunisian secret police in March 2005. The next month, he was handed a prison sentence of three and a half years because of an Internet article that allegedly “defamed the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb public order.” Abbou wrote for a banned Tunisian news Web site, Tunisnews, comparing torture in Tunisia’s prisons with that of Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib.

Harassment of Abbou and his family seems to be part of a wider campaign to punish journalists and human rights defenders who were vocal in criticizing the country’s declining human rights and freedom of expression record prior to and during the World Summit of the Information Society, held in November in Tunis.

One target of this campaign has been Neziha Rejiba, also known as Um Ziad, editor of the blocked online magazine Kalima and vice president of the Observatory for Press Freedom, Publishing and Creation, known by its French acronym OLPEC.

In December and February, Rejiba said, she received threats, suspected to stem from government sources, that her family’s reputation “would be sullied if she did not stop crossing the red lines.” Earlier this week, she said she received a letter mailed in France containing fabricated pornographic pictures featuring her husband, lawyer and former member of parliament Mokhtar Jallali.

“They are now distributing these pictures and also a videocassette of the same vile nature to hurt my family and to punish me for exercising my basic right to free expression. They hurt the image of Tunisia by using such despicable methods to confront their critics and inflict violence and pain on them. But they cannot force me to stop expressing myself freely,” Rejiba told CPJ.

“Tunisian authorities should put an end not only to the despicable persecution of Muhamed Abbou and his family, but also to his unfair imprisonment,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “They should also stop harassing and persecuting Neziha Rejiba and her family and keep in mind that such attacks, which have been increasing recently, are unacceptable.”