By Index on Censorship

Free expression groups condemn jailing of web critic Mohammed Abbou.

By jailing a high profile online opponent of the government this week, Tunisia restated its intention to silence internet critics before opening a UN summit on the information society in its capital in November 2005. It also lends weight to a growing call for an organised boycott of the event unless the Tunis authorities put their house in order. Index on Censorship reports.

Free expression groups were shocked Friday by news that, after weeks of protest at the way the Tunis authorities had treated eminent lawyer and web author Mohammed Abbou, he had been apparently summarily sentenced overnight on 28-29 April and jailed for three and a half years.

The jailing reinforces a growing call, led by Paris-based media rights group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), for a all-out summit boycott unless Tunis gives up its crackdown on internet authors. RSF condemned the proceedings as “mockery of a trial” that “trampled on the most elementary rules of law”.

Abbou was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly attacking a woman lawyer at a conference in 2002 and 18 months for an August 2004 commentary posted on the Tunisnews website that compared US torture in Iraq to the treatment of prisoners in Tunisian jails.

He had also posted an article on the same website in February 2005 which criticised Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali for inviting Israeli premier Ariel Sharon to Tunis for the summit. It is this largely ironic article that is regarded as the real reason for his arrest and jailing.

Hundreds of lawyers and human rights supporters protested Abbou’s 1 March detention. Police broke up the demonstration outside the Palais de Justice, and scores were injured, including Abbou’s wife. After this incident and others in April, he was transferred to a prison in el-Kef, some 200 kilometres from Tunis and his family.

His lawyers have reportedly been denied permission to visit him in prison on several occasions.

“The credibility of Tunisia’s case for being allowed the honour and responsibility of hosting the WSIS rests on how they treat their own internet publishers,” said Rohan Jayasekera, associate editor of Index on Censorship magazine in London. “By any international standard or convention, Tunisia appears to be failing the test.”

Index on Censorship echoes calls for the Tunisian government to repeal all legislation which stipulates prison sentences for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, in violation of international standards.

International PEN and Amnesty International, among others, believe Abbou was targeted for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Tunisia is a signatory. They have called for his immediate release without conditions.

“His detention and trial are a worrying reminder that those who criticise the government continue to be at risk of imprisonment,” added Amnesty International.

Abbou’s supporters were especially incensed by the prosecutor’s addition of the assault charge at a few days before the sentencing, alleging that Abbou had assaulted another person at a conference in 2002.

Abbou and his lawyers refused to enter a plea on this charge in protest. “There was no concrete evidence to back up the charge, apart from an unsigned medical certificate which has no legal standing,” lawyer and human rights activist Radhia Nasrawi told RSF. “A number of witnesses would have been able to testify that no assault was committed during this conference in 2002.”

“Even the most cursory reports of the proceedings would indicate that proper legal procedures were not followed,” said Index on Censorship’s Jayasekera.

“There is every indication that there has been an abuse of due process here. If the authorities insist on standing by their allegation of assault, Mohammed Abbou should be released on bail, at the very least, pending appeal. There is no justification for jailing someone for expressing their opinion.”

“The charges against him were baseless,” argued RSF. “He was really punished for having used the Internet to criticise government corruption,” it said. “In a cruel irony, he will be in prison when the WSIS opens in Tunis, in November 2005 – a conference on the circulation of news and information on the Net.”

The Paris-based media rights group has called on democratic countries to boycott the World Summit on the Information Society unless Tunisia ends its internet crackdown and releases Abbou.

Amnesty International also renewed its call for an end police surveillance of human rights defenders and their relatives, which it said was “manifestly conducted as a form of intimidation”.