Tunisian writer sentenced to jail

New York, December 5, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the one-year prison sentence handed down on Tuesday to a Tunisian freelance journalist known for his published criticism of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and members of the first family.

A court in Sakiet Ezziet, in the suburbs of  Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city after Tunis, sentenced Slim Boukhdhir, a well-known blogger and contributor to the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi to eight months for verbally assaulting a public employee while on duty and four months for violating public decency both crimes under Tunisia’s Penal Code. Boukhdhir was also fined, under the 1993 national identity card law, 5 Tunisian dinars (the equivalent of US$4) for “refusing to show his identification card to a public security agent.”

“This case shows the lengths to which Tunisian authorities will go to punish critics in the press,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We believe that Slim Boukhdir, like others before him, is being railroaded by the Tunisian justice system for his outspoken writings. We call for his immediate release.”

Boukhdir was arrested by police on November 26 in Sfax while in a taxi heading to Tunis. Police stopped his cab, asked for identification, and summoned him for arrest, according to journalists who have followed the case. Police officers alleged that Boukhdir was verbally abusive—a charge he denies.

In court in Sakiet Ezziet on Tuesday, lawyers told CPJ that Judge Hatem Ouarda denied Boukhdhir’s right to challenge the allegations made by two witnesses handpicked by the police. “The charges remain unproven. They want to involve him in this case and smear his reputation,” Mohammed Ennouri, a human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, told CPJ.

Boukhdir’s lawyers and colleagues have denounced the verdict as a sham and say they believe that his conviction is retaliation for his published criticisms of the Tunisian government. Plainclothes police have frequently targeted the blogger, harassing and assaulting him. He has staged several hunger strikes in recent years to protest this government harassment and the authorities’ refusal to grant him a passport. Shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady’s brother, he was assaulted by what he believed were plainclothes police as he left an Internet cafe in Tunis in May.

Neziha Rejiba of the banned Observatory for Press Freedom, Publishing, and Creation, as well as editor of the locally blocked online magazine Kalima, watched the trial with local and international observers. She told CPJ that “critics and dissidents are treated as criminals since President Ben Ali seized power,” 20 years ago last month.

Boukhdhir’s lawyer said they would appeal the “unfair and politically motivated” court decision.

The media in Tunisia is heavily restricted, and the government actively harasses the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government—mostly online or for foreign newspapers.