Tunisian Internet writer freed from prison

New York, July 21, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release from jail on Monday of Tunisian Internet journalist Slim Boukhdhir, who had been held for eight months after writing articles critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the first family. CPJ conducted a fact-finding mission to Tunisia earlier this month as part of a campaign seeking Boukhdhir’s release.

“We welcome this release and are relieved that our colleague has at last regained his freedom,” said Joel Campagna, CPJ’s senior Middle East program coordinator. “But the unfortunate reality is that Slim Boukhdhir never should have been jailed in the first place. His unjust imprisonment underscores the troubling state of media freedom in Tunisia. We hope that with Boukhdhir’s release Tunisian authorities will halt the practice of putting writers behind bars and rid the country of its dubious distinction as the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists over the last seven years.”

Boukhdir, a contributor to numerous Tunisian and Arab news Web sites, was serving a one-year term in Sfax Prison, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) south of the capital, Tunis, on what were widely seen as fabricated charges of insulting a public employee, violating “public decency,” and refusing to hand over identification to police. Boukhdir was jailed in November 2007 and convicted the following month. Abdelwahab Maatar, one of Boukhdhir’s lawyers, told CPJ that the journalist received a conditional release based on good behavior. Boukhdhir would be required to serve out the remainder of the sentence if he is convicted of a similar crime in the future.

Tunisia, the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists since 2001, frequently brings charges ostensibly unrelated to journalism as way to pressure outspoken reporters while deflecting international criticism, CPJ research shows. Boukhdir, a former reporter for a number of Tunisian newspapers, has been a harsh critic of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family, publishing online articles accusing them of corrupt financial practices. Prior to his arrest, Boukhdhir received numerous anonymous telephone threats and was refused a passport by the government. He was assaulted in Tunis in May 2007 shortly after writing an online story critical of the first lady’s brother.

Police in Sfax arrested Boukhdhir on November 26, 2007, after stopping his cab and demanding identification, according to his lawyers. Officers alleged that Boukhdhir was verbally abusive, triggering a prosecution that was rife with irregularities. Witnesses interviewed by Boukhdir’s lawyers and family members said police falsified statements to incriminate the journalist. The judge at Boukhdir’s trial prohibited prosecution witnesses from being cross-examined. The one-year sentence was not only the maximum allowed by law, it was unheard of for such offenses, defense lawyers said.

“My release from jail is a victory for freedom and independent journalism. The Tunisian regime managed through imprisonment to deprive me of the right to freedom of movement and to do my job while being among my loved ones. But it totally failed to break my will and determination to carry on with independent and ethical journalism,” Boukhdhir told CPJ. “It’s shameful and degrading for the whole country to jail journalists for doing their job.”

Boukhdhir often went on hunger strikes 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.

His release occurred four days before the 51st anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Tunisia—a day on which authorities have previously released political prisoners—and nine days before the opening of a conference organized by the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally and expected to give President Ben Ali the go-ahead to run for president for the fifth time in 2009.

CPJ’s July fact-finding mission to Tunisia highlighted Boukhdhir’s politically motivated imprisonment and the country’s alarming press freedom record. The CPJ delegation included board member Cheryl Gould, who wrote about the case for MSNBC.