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Tunisian Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik Loses Appeal

February 2, 2010

By: Adrian Jarrett. On Saturday, Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik lost his appeal against the controversial six month sentence handed to him in November for publicly assaulting a female motorist and causing deliberate damage to her car.

Ben Brik, a co-founder of the National Council for Civil Liberties in Tunisia and a fierce critic of longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was arrested on October 29th 2009 following the publication of critical articles in the French press during the build up to the 25th October Tunisian general election, which President Ben Ali won with almost 90% of the vote.

Freedom of the Press and Human Rights groups say that the charges against Ben Brik were fabricated to silence his criticism of the government. Reporters Without Borders have labeled the charges as “trumped up” and Amnesty International have described Ben Brik as a “prisoner of conscience.”

Ben Brik suffers from Cushing’s Syndrome, a hormonal condition for which treatment requires regular access to medication. Shortly before the November trial, France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed the concern Ben Brik’s family had for the journalist’s health and urged the Tunisian government to release Ben Brik so that he could receive medical treatment.

However, Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, confirmed that after his conviction, Ben Brik had been transferred to a prison in Siliana, 130km from his family in Tunis. Julliard added that this distance has prevented Ben Brik’s family from visiting him regularly. Ben Brik’s lawyers have also expressed their frustration. One member of his counsel told the Committee to Protect Journalists that they had been prevented from seeing their client during the build up to his appeal on numerous occasions, despite having permits from judicial authorities.

Tunisian authorities deny fabricating the case against Ben Brik and have stated that his conviction “has nothing to do with freedom of the press” and insist his transfer to Siliana was a “routine measure taken by prison officials who organize the transfer of inmates based on the capacity of different prisons.”

Ben Brik was convicted in absentia during his trial but it is believed that the overwhelming global protest and the concern shown during European Parliament public debate on the Human Rights situation in Tunisia last week may have convinced the Tunisian authorities to allow him to speak at his appeal. According to Reuters, Tunisia is sensitive to European criticism due to future plans to improve upon its current EU Association Agreement and apply to the EU for Advanced Status, which would qualify Tunisia for preferential trade terms with the European Economic Area and potentially enhance its international standing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ben Brik used this opportunity to highlight the political nature of the charges against him by stating, “When people want to live, destiny must surely respond. Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break.” These words, by Tunisian poet Abou Al Kacem Echebbi, were used to spur the resistance during the country’s guerilla War of Independence against the French in 1952-54 and currently serve as the final two versus of the Tunisian national anthem.

Photo Credit: BBC

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.