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Rights groups sound alarm on Tunisia

Latest update : 2008-04-28

Described as a “land of serenity” in tourist brochures, Tunisia is better known to human rights watchdogs as a country deprived of public liberties.


Souhyer Belhassen, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, known by its French acronym, FIDH, is sounding the alarm bells on Tunisia’s human rights situation.


In a telephone interview with FRANCE 24, Belhassen said human rights should be a critical issue during French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Tunisia. “France has a number of strategic interests in Tunisia. Paris wants to extend the immigration borders to make the Mediterranean Union project work. That’s the reason why Paris is not eager to bring up the human rights situation there,” she said. “We wrote to Sarkozy and Rama Yade, assistant minister state for Human Rights, to apprise them about the situation. But I think nothing’s going to happen immediately.”

A small country living on tourism

Denouncing the harassment and exactions suffered by independent associations, the FIDH president is also concerned about the Islamist threat in Tunisia. She regrets the fact that Europe and France granted Ben Ali’s regime a good report card. “The European Union (EU) can help guarantee a peaceful and democratic transition, but alas, it prefers turning a blind eye, thereby paving the way to an inevitable social explosion.”


Back in June 2006, the same Federation called on the EU to suspend its agreement for economic cooperation with Tunisia to protest against the alleged harassment of international observers who were attending the annual conference of Tunisia’s human rights organization. Its plea, however, fell on deaf ears.


Amnesty International wrote a letter to Sarkozy’s diplomatic advisor Jean-David Lévitte, expressing its concern over the situation in Tunisia. According to a representative for the London-based NGO, the letter sent on April 21 was intended to draw attention on human rights violations by Tunisia’s political police and on the regime’s use of terror laws to justify restrictions on liberties


Pointing to the leverage provided by French investments in Tunisia, Antoine Madelin of the International Federation for Human Rights said Paris should exert more pressure on the North African country. “I expect France to echo the concerns of the United Nations human rights bodies,” he said during FRANCE 24’s Face-Off debate. His view is not shared by Le Figaro’s international correspondent Renaud Girard. “It is not up to France to lecture the world on human rights,” he said on Face-Off. Girard suggested any reference to the human rights question should be confined to private talks between Sarkozy and his Tunisian counterpart.  


“Tunisian law promotes human rights”


But faced with complaints by NGOs, Tunisian authorities refute all criticisms expressed by human rights defenders. Quoted by the AFP, an official in Tunis said that Tunisia respects public freedoms. “Tunisia guarantees independence of the legal system. The constitution and Tunisian law protects and promotes human rights, while torture and other inhuman treatments are staunchly forbidden.” The source also noted that “The legislation severely sanctions all mistreatment of prisoners, and the law guarantees reparations to all people wrongly convicted once their innocence is proven.”


This assessment is not shared by Khadija Cherif, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, (ATFD) . She says that "in Tunisia, justice is subject to orders, corruption is becoming widespread and torture is frequent.” The Tunisian League in Defense of Human Rights, led by Moktar Trifi, affirmed in a declaration to the AFP that it was disappointed by the first trip by Sarkozy to Tunis. It says it is waiting for a “strong gesture during his state visit.”

Date created : 2008-04-28