Tunisia Urged to End Subversion of Groups Critical of the Authorities

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Tunisia Urged to End Subversion of Groups Critical of the Authorities

LONDON - The Tunisian authorities should end their subversion of human
rights organizations and dissenting groups by infiltrating them and
provoking turmoil, Amnesty International said in a new report released
today.

Independent Voices Stifled in Tunisia documents the daily struggle
faced by Tunisians who dare to criticize the authorities including the
infiltration of human rights groups and the harassment of individual
activists. 

 "The disruption of human rights organisations by the Tunisian
authorities and the fact that so many independent organizations have now
fallen victim to coups staged by government supporters is a pattern
that we cannot afford to ignore." said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy
Director at Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa
programme. "This cynical manoeuvring by the Tunisian authorities should
be roundly condemned."

The Tunisian League for Human Rights has faced continued internal
pressure since it was legally forced to open up its membership to anyone
in 1992, allowing government supporters to join and undermine the
organization's vital human rights work. 

Legal disputes between the membership close to the authorities and
the ruling party and the executive board over issues including the
closing of regional offices broke out, leading to stalemate and an
effective suspension of the League's activities. 

In another example, the Association of Tunisian Judges (Association
des Magistrates Tunisiens, AMT) is now effectively run by government
supporters following its takeover by them having experiencing a number
of run-ins with the authorities over judicial independence.

In August 2009, the independent leadership of the National Syndicate
of Tunisian Journalists (Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens,
SNJT) was toppled by government supporters after refusing to endorse the
candidacy of President Ben ‘Ali in run-up to the October 2009
presidential and legislative elections.

A new board was elected by special congress and wasted no time in
endorsing the candidacy of the Tunisian president.

"These sabotage tactics appear to be sanctioned at the highest levels
in Tunisia.  Human rights activists and those who dissent are accused
of being unpatriotic and relinquishing the honour of belonging to
Tunisia, before being harassed and intimidated" said Hassiba Hadj
Sahraoui.

The Tunisian authorities have also blocked official registration of
opposition and human rights organizations, leaving them in legal limbo
for long periods unable to meet or operate legally under Tunisian law.

The country's Penal Code was amended in June 2010, to stifle
criticism of Tunisia's human rights record from abroad by criminalizing
the actions of people who contact foreign bodies pursuing objectives
that are considered harmful to Tunisia's ‘economic security'.

This move was seen as an attempt to quash Tunisian activists working
to bring Tunisia's human rights record to the attention of international
partners when considering trade relations.

"Relying on the shameful silence of their international partners, the
Tunisian authorities are now aiming at silencing criticism abroad as
well", said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

The harassment of individual human rights activists in Tunisia also
continues with little or no investigation of complaints.

Human rights activists are monitored by security officers at home and
at work, followed to doctor's appointments and even to funerals. 
Amnesty International has documented a catalogue of incidents ranging
from physical assault to prosecution of activists based on trumped-up
charges.

Ali Ben Salem, 78, has been continually harassed and intimidated by
the Tunisian authorities because he is a long-standing critic of
Tunisia's human rights record.  He is a founding member of both the
Association for the Fight against Torture in Tunisia (Association de
lutte contre la torture en Tunisie) and the National Council for
Liberties in Tunisia (Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie),
and successfully lodged a complaint against the Tunisian authorities
before the UN in November 2007.

He is in poor health, with heart problems and continues to suffer the
effects of the torture he endured in 2000, when he was arrested,
beaten, sprayed with tear gas and left for dead at a construction site
near Tunis. 

He is now unable to pay for medical treatment as the authorities have
blocked his civil service pension.

The Tunisian government has recently hired a US PR firm and launched a
public relations campaign to counter their image as human rights
abusers and portray the country as foreign investment friendly.

"Instead of spending so much time, money and effort on massaging
their image, the Tunisian authorities should be using these resources to
effectively address the many human rights abuses in the country" said
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. "Tunisia's international partners must wake up to
the fact that the space for human rights in Tunisia is shrinking fast."

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