April 29, 2005 9:21 AM

TUNIS (Reuters) –
A Tunisian court jailed lawyer and human rights activist Mohamed Abbou for three-and-half years for charges stemming from articles he published on the Internet, lawyers said on Friday.

He went on trial on Thursday on charges of “his incitement of the population to infringe the laws”, “spreading false information ” to disturb public order and “violence” against a female lawyer.

Abbou, 39, has been detained since his arrest on March 1.

More than 300 lawyers lined up for his defence, arguing that the government was using the judiciary to punish dissidents for their opinion. The verdict came in early on Friday.

“The sentences were two years for violence and one-and-half year for the Internet articles, so he will be jailed for three-and-half years,” lawyer Radhia Nasraoui told Reuters.

Lawyers argued the government has no case in trying Abbou for “violence” against one of his female colleagues, saying the case dated back to 2002.

“The authorities came up with this violence case just to disguise their hidden motives to punish Abbou for publishing his views,” said Ayachi Hammami, also a lawyer and rights activist.

Some lawyers said the trial made a mockery of the North African country’s selection to host the U.N.-backed World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November.

The Tunisian government has been accused by human and press freedom groups of not being suitable to host of WSIS because of its record on press freedom and tolerance of dissidents.

Tunis dismissed such accusations, insisting it had won the right to host the summit in recognition for its social and economic development efforts, including Internet use expansion.

“It would be a shame and scandal for Tunisia to host the WSIS summit. It is a country that jails people for writing articles on the Internet,” said Nasraoui, who is also leading rights activist.

Abbou wrote an article on the Internet recently arguing that conditions in Tunisia’s jails were worse than Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison where abuse of prisoners by U.S. troops caused a global outcry.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and three Tunisian human rights groups said last week the government had subjected political prisoners to years of torture, rape and solitary confinement. Tunisia denies the existence of such prisoners.

Abbou also published an article criticising the authorities for inviting Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend the summit.

Sharon is unpopular in Muslim countries for his policy against Palestinians and his role as a defence minister for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Lawyers said they will lodge appeal in the next few days but many of them said Abbou will leave jail any time soon only if President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were to pardon him as he did with some prisoners in the previous years.