Tunisian court affirms journalist’s prison sentence

New York, January 18, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Tunisian appeals court’s ruling on Friday that upholds a one-year prison sentence against a journalist who had written articles critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the first family.

A court of appeal in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, confirmed a lower court’s decision issued on December 4 to imprison Slim Boukkdhir, a blogger and contributor to the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, allegedly for “verbally  “assaulting a public employee while exercising his duty” and “breaching public decency.”

The ruling is widely seen by independent journalists in Tunisia and rights activists as retaliation for Boukhdir’s published criticisms.

“Through this disgraceful prosecution of our colleague, the government has once again demonstrated the lamentable state of media freedom in Tunisia,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call for Slim Boukhdir’s immediate release and hope that the international community, in particular Tunisia’s close allies such as the United States, will take notice of the government’s ongoing attacks on independent journalism.”

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

Plainclothes police have frequently targeted the journalist, harassing and assaulting him. He has staged several hunger strikes in recent years to protest 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.

Boukhdhir has gone on two hunger strikes since November to protest police harassment and the government’s refusal to grant him a passport, and later to denounce the squalid prison conditions and intimidation by prison guards and inmates.

“The court has been instructed to issue such a ruling which obviously mirrors a political will of vengefulness,” Boukhdhir’s lawyer, Mohamed Abbou, told CPJ. “Lawyers can do nothing when political decisions are dictated to courts. The aim is simply to destroy Boukhdhir and frighten the government’s critics.” Abbou spent more than 28 months in prison after his arrest in 2005 for criticizing President Ben Ali and exposing the widespread use of torture in prisons and police stations.

The media in Tunisia are heavily restricted, and authorities actively harass the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government—mostly online or for foreign newspapers. Over the last six years, Tunisia has been the leading jailer of journalists in the Arab world—four have been imprisoned for long periods since 2001.