Tunisian airport officials confiscate CPJ publications

On Saturday, Tunis airport customs officials confiscated two copies of CPJ’s annual report, Attacks on the Press, as well as five copies of the Arabic-language translation of the Middle East and North Africa section of the book from Tunisian rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou and journalist Lotfi Hidouri on their return from Morocco, the two men told CPJ. 

Officials also confiscated from Hidouri—“at the request of the airport police”—a book titled Do We Deserve Democracy? by Egyptian novelist and essayist Alaa al-Aswani, a study on the political situation in Morocco by Moroccan academic Abdallah Laroui, and the latest issue of the Moroccan weekly Al-Ayyam (issue 416, February 25). This issue carried articles on Arab first ladies.

CPJ staff met with Abbou and Hidouri in Casablanca last week and handed one copy of Attacks on the Press to Abbou and the other CPJ publications to Hidouri. We asked them to the books along to independent colleagues in Tunisia.

Not satisfied with merely confiscating publically available materials, airport police physically and verbally assaulted Abbou and threatened to send him back to jail. The prominent human rights lawyer spent 28 months in prison for having written articles for Tunisnews, one of scores of news Web sites blocked by Tunisian authorities that were critical of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons with that of Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib.

Like the currently jailed critical journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, Abbou was denied a fair trial. He was arrested five years ago this month and sentenced in April 2005 to three and a half years in prison.

Amnesty International, which observed the sham trial in Tunis, considered Abbou a “prisoner of conscience solely detained for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.” International pressure, including from CPJ, led to his release before the end of his jail term in 2007. Abbou and Slim Boukhdhir‘s imprisonment and the continuous persecution of other online writers and the blocking of news and opposition Web sites and blogs and e-mails led CPJ in 2009 to name Tunisia one of the “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger.”

In 2002, Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui became the first Arab Internet journalist jailed for his work, according to CPJ research. Many believe that police torture and the harsh detention conditions might have led to the premature death of this young blogger in March 2005, nearly 16 months after his release.

Local rights groups condemned last week’s verbal and physical assaults on Abbou and denounced what they called the “vengeful treatment” of rights defenders and critical journalists and the “arbitrary confiscation” of books and newspapers.

Abbou told CPJ that in addition to assaulting him and confiscating CPJ’s book, Tunisian plainclothes police recently intensified the siege of his home and office and “closely follow” him wherever he goes. “They seem determined to terrorize my family and friends and neighbors and destroy my professional career,” he said.

Naziha Réjiba, editor of the blocked online publication Kalima and 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner said confiscating books in Tunisia is “a form of persecution by a political regime ferociously opposed to independent intellectual and cultural activities.”

In a brief interview with CPJ, she added that Ben Ali’s regime is “so blinded by his hostility” to independent journalists and writers and human rights defenders that its airport police once confiscated a copy of the country’s restrictive press law from Hidouri. “The police also confiscated, years ago, a copy of the bible sent by mail to Mohamed Talbi, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and researcher on religions,” Réjiba said.