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TUNISIA: Authorities give human rights group a taste of government repression

March 24, 2010 | 12:51 pm

HRW press Plainclothes police officers had been following them for days. The hotel suddenly rescinded its offer to rent them a conference room, and then, when they returned to their suite after dinner, they were told it had been flooded.

"Coincidentally, there were no other rooms available in the whole hotel," Sarah Whitson said wryly.

As the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, the dark irony was not lost on Whitson. She was supposed to be holding a press conference in Tunis on the repression of political prisoners in Tunisia, but instead she found herself facing the same political tactics and harassment she and her team had so scrupulously documented.

The press conference Wednesday was to announce the release of a 42-page report titled "A Larger Prison: Repression of Former Political Prisoners in Tunisia." But several days ago the government informed Whitson that the conference would not take place, dismissing the report as "biased."

Authorities sent minders to follow the Human Rights Watch team and called Tunisian journalists to warn them against attending the press conference. When Whitson and her colleagues decided go forward with it from the offices of a prominent human rights lawyer, police physically blocked journalists and lawyers from entering and took down the license plate numbers of their cars. In the end, just one diplomat and three activists were able to attend.

"We’ve held two press conferences before without incident, so this came as a big surprise and it reflects what people here in Tunisia are telling us, that things are getting worse," Whitson, told The Times.

Tunisia has been criticized for its human rights record by a number of international organizations, but maintains close economic and intelligence ties with most Western countries, including the United States. According to Human Rights Watch, government harassment of former prisoners includes close surveillance, denial of passports, threats of re-arrest and restrictions on movement.

Whitson taped the press conference and uploaded to YouTube.

"We think it's important to maintain the principle of free speech, and to the extent that this government has chosen to block this, we think it exposes the Tunisian government for what is is, a government that does not respect basic rights," Whitson said.

– Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Human Rights Watch's Sarah Whitson and prominent Tunisian lawyer Muhamad Nouri at a press conference Wednesday. Video of the conference can be found on YouTube. Credit: Sarah Whitson

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