New York, December 11, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about the health and detention conditions of Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik and the flagrant and recurrent violations of his right to see his wife and lawyers.
The health and detention conditions of Ben Brik, one of the most critical journalists of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who is currently serving a six-month jail sentence on a series of trumped-up charges, are alarming, lawyers and journalists told CPJ.
His wife, Azza Zarrad, and brother Jalal Zoghlami and lawyers Radhia Nasraoui, Ayachi Hammami and Mohamed Abbou have been repeatedly prevented from visiting him at Siliana Prison, nearly 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of the Tunisian capital, where detention conditions are “much harsher” than other prisons closer to his home in Tunis, lawyer and former political prisoner Mohamed Abbou told CPJ.
“Taoufik’s life is in danger. His health is so frail that I doubt he could survive the squalid detention conditions and months of imprisonment,” his wife told CPJ. “This is a case of absolute repression and abuse of power and vengeance inflicted on a political prisoner and his family.”
The Web site of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, to which Ben Brik was a regular contributor until his arrest on November 26, quoted on Thursday his sister Saïda, who briefly saw him on Tuesday, as saying that her brother’s health and detention conditions were “alarming” and “deplorable.”
“We urge President Ben Ali to order an immediate end to the vindictive persecution of our colleague Taoufik Ben Brik,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “The Tunisian authorities bear full responsibility for his welfare.”
Ben Brik’s lawyers and relatives told CPJ that he had diabetes and a hormonal disorder called Cushing’s Syndrome, which require regular medication and care.
Naziha Réjiba, a 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner told CPJ that the persecution of Ben Brik has not abated for years and that in May 2008 an Interior Ministry security officer called his wife to “encourage her to divorce him.”
On November 26, a Tunis minor court handed down a six-month jail sentence to Ben Brik for assaulting a woman, damaging property, harming public decency, and defamation. Many journalists said that interviews Ben Brik conducted with leading dissidents before the reelection of Ben Ali for a fifth consecutive five-year term and a satirical story making fun of the president’s de facto life term he wrote for the Web site of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur are the real causes for his current imprisonment.
On December 1, Zuhair Makhlouf, a political activist and correspondent for Assabil Online, a Tunisian news Web site, was sentenced to three months in prison for “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” The court also ordered him to pay 6,000 Tunisian dinars (US$4,700) in damages. Both Ben Brik and Makhlouf appealed the verdicts.
Attacks and physical assaults on critical journalists and also smear campaigns calling them and dissidents “traitors” and “agents on the payroll of Western and Israeli intelligence services” and “sexual perverts” have been escalating since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali threatened to prosecute anyone who casts doubt on his reelection in late October.
Nearly 100 Tunisian journalists and political and rights activists established on Thursday a group called the National Committee to Defend Freedom of Expression and Information, coinciding with the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their stated aim is to denounce the “grave deterioration” of freedom of expression and the “hegemony of the authorities on the media.” Tunisian authorities denied any attack on press freedom and called the committee “illegal,” according to local news reports.