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TUNISIA: Online activists rally to free fellow blogger Fatma Riahi [Updated]

November 6, 2009 |  9:54 am

Lina Ben Mhenni was one of the last people to see Fatma Riahi the day she was arrested. The two women bloggers had been in touch online and by phone, but it wasn't until Ben Mhenni saw that Riahi's Facebook profile and blog had been shut down that they made urgent plans to meet for coffee on last Sunday. Riahi, a high school drama teacher in the small seaside city of Monastir, had been ordered to report to the Criminal Brigade in the capital, Tunis, where Ben Mhenni lives.

Fatma_riahi

"From one cup of coffee, we spent the whole day together," Ben Mhenni wrote of Riahi in a series of e-mails to the Times. "In fact, I discovered an exceptional person -- funny, full of life, [an] artist [...] We talked about music, we laughed watching Tunisian television, we talked about blogs and bloggers."

They also talked about the Criminal Brigade, the investigative security force Riahi would have to answer to, and Ben Mhenni's boyfriend, Muhammad Soudani, who was arrested on Oct. 22 after giving an interview to a foreign radio station and has not been seen since.

[Updated, Saturday, Nov. 7, at 11:55 p.m. PST: Fatma Riahi was released Saturday morning, according to a statement posted on the Facebook page and blog devoted to her release. 

The statement said Riahi was in good health but was still in danger of being re-arrested.]

"We talked about the Criminal Brigade [summoning] her, her worries, but we were optimistic as we know that she didn't do something wrong," Ben Mhenni wrote.

Still, she could see her friend was worried. Riahi had been writing ironic, thinly veiled allegorical pieces about Tunisian politics and society for her blog under the name "Arabicca." When she asked Ben Mhenni to spend the night, Ben Mhenni said she agreed without hesitation.

"I left her in the morning to my work and she went to the Criminal Brigade," Ben Mhenni wrote. Five days later, she has no idea what became of her friend.

Riahi's lawyer and friend, Leila Ben Debba, said investigators interrogated Riahi for three days in a row, accusing her of penning the infamous political satire blog debatunisie under the handle Blog de Z. No official charges have been filed yet, but authorities confiscated Riahi's computer and Ben Debba says she has not been allowed to contact her client since Wednesday. Blog de Z's most recent post is dated Thursday, three full days after Riahi was first taken into custody.

Riahi's friends in the Tunisian blogosphere are rallying as best they can, deploying their various avatars throughout the Internet in an effort to raise awareness and bring publicity to Riahi's case. But the same international community that expressed shock and outrage over Iran's controversial elections and media crackdown are not likely to be as stern with Tunisia, an ally in the "war on terror."

Incidentally, the bloggers' advocacy site Global Voices ranks Tunisia just behind Iran as one of the most repressive countries towards bloggers and online activists, although it is a fraction of Iran's size. The most famous Tunisian blogger prisoner is Zouhair Yahyaoui, who was arrested in 2000 after inviting readers to vote on whether Tunisia was a "republic, a kingdom, a zoo or a prison." Three years later, the 36-year-old died of a heart attack after reportedly being severely tortured.

Aymen Jamani, a fellow Tunisian blogger and friend of Riahi's, insisted she was not a political blogger, and that she wrote extensively on poetry and art.

Jamari also supplied The Times with a copy of her final post before the blog was deleted. Here are excerpts from "damage":

Wanting to live free, read the newspaper you want, meet with friends or colleagues in a coffee house to discuss the development plan proposed by the municipality or the government, for coastal protection, the devastating side effects of the construction of a Marina, the curriculum of our children, to organize a concert of solidarity with a cause, to develop a campaign for the candidate best able to convey our ideas...to create an association to safeguard the Andalusian music or Berber language or to support victims of floods, to create a journal, write an article...participate in the organization of city life, it seems that this is what POLITICS means.

Making politics essentially out of love before it is hatred for or against someone, to love the idea of freedom, of a country, to want the best for its schools, its former children, its nature and culture, and to try and leave the place in better condition than we found it as much as possible for our children to continue the project.

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Fatma Riahi, aka Arabicca. Credit: global voices


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