Recently freed journalist is abducted, threatened

New York, September 22, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the abduction for nearly two hours on Saturday of Internet journalist Slim Boukhdhir, who has been continuously harassed since he was freed in July after a politically motivated imprisonment.

Boukhdhir, who spent eight months in prison for writing articles critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, told CPJ that he was abducted Saturday evening as he was heading to an Internet café in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city. He said he was forced into a small French-made car and taken first to a police station near the city’s old district and then to an isolated area about nine miles (15 kilometers) west of Sfax. There, he said, his captors threatened him before forcing him from the car.

Boukhdhir, noting that he was taken initially to a police station, said he believes his captors were plainclothes state security agents.

“After leaving the police station, they started insulting me and threatened to inflict on me the same fate of Libyan Internet journalist Daif Al Ghazal, kidnapped and killed in neighboring Libya in 2005. They even claimed they had nothing to do with Tunisian police and were hired by a fictitious man allegedly to teach me a lesson for having and affair with his wife,” Boukhdhir told CPJ. He said he was not injured.

“We are shocked by this menacing treatment of our colleague who has already paid a heavy price for independent journalism,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “This ironically comes as a response to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who earlier this month in Tunis called on President Ben Ali to make significant steps toward reform and to let journalists do their jobs.”

Boukdhir told CPJ he believes the abduction was sparked in large part by his recent article urging Ben Ali to follow Rice’s advice to loosen the state’s grip on civil society. The September 9 piece was posted on the officially banned Tunisian news site Tunisnews and the Egyptian news site Al-Masryun. He argued that Rice’s call for reform was an opportunity Ben Ali should not miss.

“There is no doubt that this abduction has something to do with Boukhdhir’s risky commitment to independent reporting and has been masterminded by the state security police,” human rights lawyer Abderraouf Ayadi told CPJ. In August, CPJ wrote a letter to Ben Ali to protest his government’s refusal to grant Boukhdhir a passport.

Boukhdhir was freed this summer after an intensive advocacy campaign by CPJ and many other organizations and individuals. He had been arrested on November 26, 2007, after police stopped his cab and demanded identification, according to his lawyers.

Officers alleged that Boukhdhir insulted them, 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. And the one-year sentence he eventually received for insulting police was unheard of for such offenses, defense lawyers said.

“My release from jail is a victory for freedom and independent journalism. The Tunisian regime failed to break my will and determination to carry on with independent and ethical journalism,” Boukhdhir told CPJ after he was freed in July.