Tunisian Internet editor to stand trial

New York, August 1, 2007— The managing editor of a Tunisian online magazine is due to appear in court in Tunis on August 2 on charges of defamation that could lead to his imprisonment for up to three-and-a-half years, according to one of his lawyers.

The charges against Tunisian rights activist Omar Mestiri stem from an article in French posted on the Web site Kalima on September 5, 2006, in which he criticized the Tunisian Bar Association for reversing a decision to disbar a lawyer close to the government who was convicted on several counts of perjury and fraud. Access to Kalima is blocked in the country.

Ayachi Hammami, one of Mestiri’s lawyers, told CPJ that the trial has, for unclear reasons, been scheduled for a time when the ordinary judicial year is in recess, which might afford it less scrutiny than it could receive otherwise. “There is no reason not to examine this case during the ordinary judicial year due to begin in mid-September,” he said.

“We believe this is another political prosecution and an attempt by the Tunisian authorities to settle scores with independent writers,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We stand by our colleague Omar Mestiri and urge the court to dismiss this case.”

Last week, CPJ welcomed the release from prison of Tunisian human rights lawyer Mohammed Abbou, who had been jailed for nearly 28 months because of online articles he wrote criticizing the government. But authorities continue to prosecute critics like Mestiri.

Abadallah Zouari, a reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al Fajr, spent 11 years in prison and more than five years under virtual house arrest hundreds of miles from his family. In June, authorities extended for 26 months his banishment and round-the-clock police surveillance of him in the southern city of Zarzis, more than 300 miles away from his wife and children.

He was forcibly sent there after his release from prison in 2002 and has been prevented since then from visiting his family, earning a living, or even using nearby Internet cafes. A military court in Tunis sentenced Zouari in 1992 to 11 years in prison for “belonging to an illegal organization” and “planning to change the nature of the state.” Local and international human rights groups and Western diplomats deemed the trial “unfair and politically motivated.”

“Tunisian authorities should end this harassment of our colleague once and for all and allow him to work and to live under the same roof with his family,” said Simon.