Take action to end impunity in Tunisia

From 1 to 23 November, The International Free Expression Exchange’s (IFEX) International Day to End Impunity campaign is highlighting cases where “an individual who has been threatened, attacked or worse for expressing themselves.” In all the case the perpetrators of abuse have not been brought to account.

On the anniversary of the coup that brought President Ben Ali to power in Tunisia in 1987, IFEX is highlighting the case of Tunisian poet Mohamed Sghaier Ouled Ahmed, who was attacked by Salafists in August. Nobody has been arrested in connection with the assault.

God you were right
Kings would – as would Presidents too –
Ruin a village if they enter it
So ruin the castles that belong to Kings
To serve the villagers right

We all went to vote
And none voted for those who won

From the poem “Ilahi” (My God), by Sghaier Ouled Ahmed

Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, Tunisian poet Sghaier Ouled Ahmed has been accused of being an infidel and abusing Islam by the country’s religious leaders because of hard-hitting poems such as “Ilahi”.

In August this year, ultra-conservative Salafists took the accusations to a new level.
In a TV interview In the interview, Ahmed criticised the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, which won elections after Ben Ali was ousted in 2011. A group of at least five Salafists were waiting outside the studio for the prominent poet to finish the interview.

As soon as Ahmed stepped out of the Tunis television station, one of the men punched him in the face. Onlookers and police stood idly by.

After the attack, he said,

I no longer recognise this government which cannot protect its citizens… No officers or officials will be saved from the bombs of my poetry and prose if they continue to turn a blind eye to such attacks.

The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group, a coalition of 21 IFEX members campaigning for free expression in Tunisia (including Index on Censorship), calls it an example of “old style repression in new Tunisia“. They report that attacks against journalists, artists and writers by police and ultra-conservative groups are actually on the increase since the country was freed from Ben Ali’s regime in 2011. And the new government has done nothing about them.

Find out more about Sghaier Ouled Ahmed and the International Day to End Impunity campaign here

Friends of Index's Tunisia Monitoring Group take place in new government

It was pleasing to see a few names familiar to Index on Censorship as the Tunisian government took office over the weekend. People we defended and championed during the years of the former Ben Ali regime, and frequently featured in the magazine’s Index Index listings, turned up in a very different kind of list, one including Moncef Marzouki as new Tunisian president, the second most powerful role after the new prime minister Hamid Jebali.

Index chaired the Tunisia Monitoring Group of the IFEX free expression network (IFEX-TMG) between 2007 and 2011. I once had the pleasure of sharing a 2007 panel in Washington DC with Marzouki (recording here), convened in an attempt to get the US government and Congress to recognise the state of repression in Tunisia at the time. He dealt graciously with the Ben Ali drones specially flown in by the regime to try and discredit our arguments.

Marzouki, a doctor and established rights activist was jailed in 1994 after challenging Ben Ali in a presidential election. He was released four months later following an international campaign, but forced into exile. A brief return to Tunisia was marked by weeks when hundreds of plainclothes security service officers surrounded his home and office around the clock and followed him everywhere.

Two other names who were regular namechecks in Index Index have a particularly significant role in the new government. Mohammed Abbou, a member of Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic party, and now deputy prime minister for administrative reform, has the task of retraining, reenergising or just removing the old-regime party hacks still populating the old sclerotic civil service.

The new deputy prime minister for relations with the Constituent Assembly, Abderazek Kilani, has the equally important role of ensuring that the government — charged with drafting a new constitution for the country — remains answerable to the Assembly and it’s voice is heard. Kilani, an independent, is one of the country’s most active human rights activists, going back to his time as leader of Tunisia’s Young Lawyers in 1989.

Outside the government, another lawyer and another name from Index’s back issues, Judge Kalthoum Kennou is the new president of the Association of Tunisian Judges (AMT). She and 10 other brave and independent-minded judges elected to the MAT’s ruling council were the focus of a 2010 campaign by Index, the IFEX-TMG and Article 19 to support the independence of the judiciary.

Index’s work in the country, coordinating a major advocacy project in Tunisia that begun a year before Ben Ali’s removal, goes on. More details.