- Although Dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali this weekend freed a total of 1600 prisoners to mark Tunisia's upcoming 50th anniversary of independence, rights activists complain that most political prisoners still remain in jail. Only 80 out of Tunisia's estimated 280 political prisoners were released. Writers, journalists and human rights defenders are withheld.
It was presented as a nice gesture - a mercy for the ones vegetating in Tunisia's inhospitable prisons. The former French colony is soon to celebrate 50 years of statehood. What a petty to be locked up in prison when the streets of Tunis, Sfax and Sousse are filled with red-and-white banners and photos of a smiling President.
The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) sees it differently. The "traditional" amnesty given prior to any important event "this time comes to cover over a ban on a demonstration demanding liberties and the release of opinion prisoners in Tunisia," the human rights group holds.
The most relevant Tunisian human rights activists were not affected by the presidential pardon, ANHRI noted. Lawyer and human rights writer Mohammed Abbou, for example, remains in prison. Mr Abbou was detained exactly one year ago after posting an article on the Internet where he criticised the human rights situation in Tunisia and compared it with the Iraqi Abu Ghareib prison. For that, he was sentenced to three years and a half imprisonment.
Amnesty International does not see the situation equally negatively and welcomed the limited amnesty given by President El Abedine. After all, "more than 80 political prisoners" had been released. Merely a beginning, though. According to the human rights group, some 200 other political prisoners remain in Tunisian prisons.
Among the 80 released political prisoners, thee were 75 prisoners who had been put to jail for more than 10 years because of their membership of Ennahda, an Islamist organisation that is banned in Tunisia. "Most of the Ennahda prisoners were arrested, tortured and sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials in 1992," Amnesty holds. "While serving their sentences, many were subjected to harsh prison conditions, including prolonged solitary confinement and ill-treatment as an additional punishment."
But also among the Ennahda prisoners, most of those given the harshest sentences were not included in the presidential pardon. Several of those who were sentenced to life imprisonment still remain in detention. They have been in prison for over ten years.
One of those released was Hamadi Jebali, an Ennahda leader and former editor of the Islamist publication 'al-Fajr' (Dawn), who was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment after an allegedly unfair trial before a military in 1992. He spent many years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement and was on many occasions denied medical attention and dietary needs while in prison, Amnesty says. "Visits were also often denied without reasons being given to the family."
Also six members of the so-called Zarzis "terrorist" group were released. The six men originally from the town of Zarzis in the south of Tunisia, were arrested in February 2003 and imprisoned on terrorism-related charges in April 2004 after an allegedly unfair trial before a Criminal Court in Tunis. "The main evidence against them was confession statements that they alleged were extracted from them under torture while they were held incommunicado in pre-trial detention," Amnesty claims.
While welcoming the releases of political prisoners today, Amnesty said it was concerned that the releases were conditional. "If those freed violate the conditions of their release, they could risk being re-arrested to serve the remainder of their sentence following a simple decision of the Minister of Justice and without any judicial process," the human rights group holds. "They could also be put under house arrest or placement in a public or private institution, or both, for the remainder of their sentence."
Also human rights groups within Tunisia are generally concerned over the direction the regime is following. The Tunisian Observatory for Freedom of the Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC) today warned that February had been one of the worst months so far regarding acts of censorship in the country. Both local and international newspapers had been confiscated from news kiosks throughout the country.
Earlier this month, the political police publicly summoned many human rights defenders, as well as members of the editorial board of the newspaper 'Kalima' and confiscated copies of the newspaper in their possession after having subjected them to a search. President El Abedine, also known as the "Arab Pinochet", surely will know how to fill up prisons again after Independence Day, rights activists fear.
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