Playing fast and loose with justice in Tunisia

If more evidence was needed of the peculiar concept of justice now playing in Tunisia’s law courts, it was laid out for all to see this week, with one persecuted journalist’s lawyers walking out in protest at the judge’s handling of his case and another reporter – jailed on similarly trumped up charges – left seriously ill by lack of care in prison.

The authorities continue to use the courts as a means of repression against journalists, as the case of journalist Mouldi Zouabi, a journalist with independent Radio Kalima demonstrated this week.

After he was physically attacked in April, police decided not to charge the attacker.  Bizarrely, weeks later they chose to charge Zouabi, the victim, with “violent behavior and committing actual bodily harm” against his assailant.

The case was referred to a higher court on 6 October, and he now faces up to two years in jail. His lawyers walked out of the last hearing in protest at what they say are multiple breaches of due process. Tunisia’s politicised judiciary is being used to silence free speech by giving credence to often ludicrous charges and suspect evidence, with dire effects on both journalists and their families.

This week there were renewed concerns for another victim of Tunisia’s politicized judiciary, Fahem Boukaddous, jailed for reporting public demonstrations against unemployment and corruption in the mining town of Gafsa in 2008.

Boukaddous, whose health has sharply deteriorated in prison, is serving a four year jail term following his conviction in March for “forming a criminal association liable to attack persons”.

“We are very concerned about Boukaddous who needs urgent medical treatment unavailable to him in prison,” said Aidan White, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) General Secretary. “Boukaddous has already been denied his freedom as punishment for his independent journalism. Without immediate action his long term health is under threat.”

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 20 IFEX members, currently chaired by Index on Censorship, has raised repeated concerns about the lack of independence shown by Tunisia’s magistrates and the abuse of the system to target journalists like Mouldi and Boukaddous.

A recent mission by the IFEX-TMG to Tunisia concluded that for nearly a decade the Tunisian state has worked to prevent the establishment of an impartial and independent judiciary, “for the purposes of reinforcing its grip on public dialogue and limiting peaceful critical discourse”.

The state strategy came out in the open in July 2001, when Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui called on the Tunisian president, in his capacity as Chair of the Superior Council of Magistrates, to recognise that obstructions to an independent judiciary were damaging freedom of expression and democracy in Tunisia.

The independent Tunisian Association of Magistrates (AMT) took a similar line, but when it called for a reform of the law to tackle the issue of judicial independence, its elected nine-member Board, including three women magistrates, were deposed and some reassigned against their will to new courts far away from their homes in Tunis.

The IFEX-TMG group has called on Tunis to cease political interference in the work of the Superior Council of Magistrates, supposed to impartially and independently run the country’s judicial system.

Ben Ali's middle aged rent-a-mob roar into action again

There was a curious coda to the Tunisian government’s attempt to sabotage a debate on the parlous state of free expression in Tunisia, which tail-ended a conclave of journalists and publishers in Beirut at the weekend.

Having successfully banned keynote speaker Mohammed Abbou from flying to the Lebanese capital, the Tunis authorities dispatched a gaggle of officials – they were too middle aged and moustachioed to qualify as a gang – to bust up what was left.

With Index on Censorship in the chair, the panel was reduced to two veteran critics of the Tunis state, Neziha Rejiba and Index award winner Sihem Bensedrine, who read the speech that human rights lawyer Abbou had planned to deliver.

The pro-government supporters settled in for the Q&A, initially content to make complex appeals to separate media rights from human rights (not explaining how) and issue sour pronouncements on imperialism and Iraq.

But as it became clear that the chair was going to be taking the scheduled 6.00pm end to the debate seriously, they went for broke, leaping to their feet, waving copies of state-favoured Tunisian newspapers and hurling abuse. To wit, that we are all party to a multi-million dollar CIA backed plot and that the chair would meet the fate of all colonialists when he next stepped foot in Tunisia.

The chair couldn’t speak to the CIA millions except wistfully recall his last credit-crunched pre-Xmas credit card bill and wish it were true. And the fate of all colonialists in Tunisia seems to be the ruthless setting up in a nice hotel adjacent to a lovely beach, with great food and friendly service for two weeks.

As ever though, there’s a serious note. Index has spotted Tunisian government sponsored ‘contributors’ at similar events before.

At the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and UNESCO in Paris, in Washington DC and in Geneva in the run up to the World Summit on the Information Society, where agents provocateurs did their utmost to disrupt opposition and free expression groups’ speaking engagements. Many pro-government press commentaries on Tunisian free speech activists read like hate speech.

For the rest of the Arab journalists and publishers at the event, part of the third Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut organised by the World Association of Newspapers and the Beirut daily an-Nahar, the scene was a bit, well, retro. A flashback to the 1970s.

Apart from Zimbabwe, Tunisia is the only country that employs the tactic so regularly. “We don’t like to see this kind of stuff from regime apparatchiks,” said one observer. “I think we all hoped that this kind of behaviour was history.”