- After Tunisian police used force to block a recent human rights gathering, the government has now branded these gatherings "illegal". Activists in Tunisia have for years been banned from establishing independent human rights organisations and from staging protests.
The same day Tunisia's state-controlled newspapers headlined President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's achievements on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, scores of police in Tunis surrounded the headquarters of one of the country's leading rights groups, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT).
Police blocked access to people hoping to attend the group's general assembly, and also assaulted two CNLT members and another human rights defender. The US group Human Rights Watch today described the police action as "brutal".
In recent years, Tunisian police have prevented independent human rights gatherings on dozens of occasions, often using violence to disperse those hoping to gain access to the building where the meeting was scheduled.
The repression of human rights gatherings has occurred at a time when banners around Tunis herald the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, which the city is hosting in November. The summit is billed as a global discussion of the impact of the digital revolution and how best to bridge the "digital divide" between rich and poor.
- In hosting the UN summit on the information society, Tunisia wants to be seen as a global leader in expanding access to information, said Sarah Leah of Human Rights Watch. "But when it comes to its human rights record, the Tunisian government is a leader in suppressing information."
In addition to preventing meetings of the CNLT, Tunisian authorities are blocking local access to the group's website http://welcome.to/cnlt, as well to many other websites that focus on human rights and politics in Tunisia. The official and quasi-official media observe a complete blackout on the organisation’s activities and statements.
A government official confirmed that police had prevented the 11 December gathering, saying the CNLT "is not a legal organisation." The official, speaking anonymously to Agence France-Presse, denied that the police used violence.
Although Tunisia's constitution guarantees freedom of association, Tunisian authorities have refused legal recognition to every truly independent human rights organisation that has applied over the past decade. In 1999, the CNLT appealed the refusal of its application by the Interior Ministry, but five years later the administrative court has yet to hear the case.
In July, police in Tunis blocked another independent group, the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (AISPP), from holding its general assembly in its President's law office. On 15 June, authorities had denied the group legal recognition.
In the case of two other rights groups, authorities at the Interior Ministry have refused even to accept the applications for legal recognition by the Association against Torture (ALTT) and the Tunisian Centre for an Independent Judiciary (CTIJ).
Although legally recognised, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) also faces constant government harassment, according to Human Rights Watch. On 28 November, police massed in front of the League's office in Kairouan and set up roadblocks at the entrance of the city to prevent people from reaching a conference on the recent national elections.
- Tunisian authorities boast that there are more than 8,000 legally recognised associations in the country, Ms Whitson said. "But as long as the government bans or harasses the handful of groups that dare to question government policies, freedom of association cannot be said to exist in Tunisia," she added.
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