Critical writer jailed in Tunisia

New York, November 27, 2007–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the detention of a Tunisian freelance journalist known for his published criticism of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and members of the first family.

On Monday, police in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, detained Slim Boukhdhir, a well-known blogger and contributor to the London-based Al-Quds Al Arabi. He was charged with “aggression against a public employee” and “violation of public morality standards,” according to the journalist’s lawyer. Under the penal code, the charges could bring 18 months in prison. Boukhdhir was also charged under a 1993 national identity card law with “refusal to show his identification card to a public security agent.” He could be fined under that law.

A court in the suburban city of Sakiet Ezzeit denied his release today. The hearing is scheduled to resume on December 4. Authorities did not disclose the basis for the charges.

“The Tunisian government is again using the judicial system to silence independent-minded journalists and bloggers,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Slim Boukhdhir has been a frequent target of assault and harassment by plainclothes police and it appears the courts are now taking their turn.”  

Boukhdhir has staged several hunger strikes in recent years to protest government harassment and authorities’ refusal to grant him a passport. He was assaulted as he left an Internet café in Tunis in May, shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady’s brother.

Boukhdhir’s lawyer, Abdel Wahab Maattar, told CPJ that he was surprised Judge Hatem Ouarda did not allow his client to give more than a brief denial of the charges during today’s proceedings. “This case seriously raises the issue of the independence of the judiciary,” Maattar said.

Police arrested Boukhdhir Monday morning as he was leaving the city of Sfax, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) south of the Tunisian capital, in a taxi with other passengers. He told his lawyers that he had an appointment that day at the Khaznadar Police Station in the suburbs of Tunis regarding his passport application.

Human rights groups condemned the arrest as politically motivated. Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer who spent more than two years in prison for criticizing Ben Ali, said Boukhdhir had filed several police complaints saying that plainclothes officers had assaulted him. “All these complaints were ignored, as if the state did not exist and there were only room for settling scores with dissidents, vengefulness and violence,” he said.