A rare free-speech victory in Tunisia

The release of Mohammed Abbou gives human rights advocates hope, and perhaps a formula for more political freedoms in the North African nation.

Lawyer Mohammed Abbou, Tunisia's most famous political prisoner, became a free man this summer thanks in part to home-grown activists who are finding new ways around government restrictions on dissent.

This tiny community of opposition groups, which runs the ideological gamut from conservative Islamists to liberal democrats, normally count their mere existence an accomplishment. So when Mr. Abbou was released from prison the day before Tunisia's Republic Day in July, along with 21 other political prisoners, it was a rare tangible victory.

While no one sees massive changes coming to Tunisia's authoritarian system, analysts say that the case is a sign that local persistence can pay off – especially when the international community joins the chorus. It also raises hopes among some activists that the government may think twice about jailing detractors in the future.

Abbou's case was a high-profile embarrassment for a country that insists it holds no political prisoners and is concerned about fostering an image as a moderate, modern Arab country.

"Maybe after all this ... we will have a bit more discussion with the government," says Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights.

In 2005, Abbou was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for two crimes. He was convicted of assaulting a female lawyer in 2002 and for defaming the judiciary in a 2005 online article, which compared torture in Tunisian prisons to the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, says Ridha Khemakhem, head of the Ministry of Justice human rights unit.

"These crimes are not political. They are real. So he is not a political prisoner," says Mr. Khemakhem. "All people are free to say what they want."

But human rights advocates say the charges were trumped up in retaliation for another online article Abbou wrote criticizing Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali for meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Abbou says that at the time he was arrested, others were writing similar criticisms online about the government but, unlike him, their postings were usually anonymous. That's changing. "Now there are many people here using their names on the Internet and it's growing. It has to start small and now it is growing," says the energetic lawyer during an interview in his home in Tunis.

During his imprisonment, international human rights groups and foreign officials (including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was there two weeks before his release), helped raise Abbou's profile and put pressure on the Tunisian government to free him.

Local activists kept his case on the front burner here and coordinated their efforts with outside groups to bring the crucial foreign pressure to bear. The lawyers' association that Abbou is a member of staged a 52-day sit-in in front of the court after he was convicted. The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia invited foreign human rights activists to Tunisia last spring for a day of protest against Abbou's imprisonment. Opposition political groups staged a protest in front of the prison where he was held and accompanied Abbou's wife, Samia, on a visit to the prison – but the visit was stopped by young men who attacked the protesters under the gaze of police near the prison gate. Two Tunisian journalists known for testing the limits of press freedom here were beaten last summer by secret police after interviewing Abbou's wife at her home.

"There has never been a case like his that became a symbol," says Mr. Trifi, noting that Abbou was already a high-profile opposition figure when he was jailed. His case attracted a lot of attention "because he wrote just a story. It's just his ideas."

Abbou is on probation for a year, the rest of his sentence, and is barred from leaving Tunisia during that time.

While encouraged by Abbou and the other prisoners' release, Trifi says the government hasn't signaled that it plans broader democratic reforms.

"The way to [secure] rights is not to argue for it but to act," says Omar Mestiri, a journalist with the banned Kalima magazine and among those who campaigned for Abbou's release. "It's a huge police state. We are a few men." But he adds, their faith in the rightness of their views is a source of strength – "a positive weapon."

While Tunisian opposition groups share common causes – such as greater freedom of expression, fair elections, and freeing political prisoners (estimated at "dozens" by human rights groups) – their wide ideological differences mean they seldom work as a united front.

"The possibility to create unity is strong but it isn't realized," say Mr. Mestiri.

A Tunisian official who declined to be identified for this story, rejects the oppositionists' claims about government restrictions. "The authorities do not engage in harassment of the opposition. It is in fact the government and authorities who have taken the initiative in the last 20 years to allow the opposition to get a better hearing and to express itself much more on the issues of the day," says the official, noting that Tunisia allows a handful of government-approved political parties to hold seats in parliament.

But observers say that unsanctioned government critics are treated harshly. "The Tunisian government will be as ... repressive as it can without getting too much international backlash. They have gotten international backlash for some time from France and the US," says William Zartman, director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Meanwhile, Abbou is modest about what his case means to Tunisian opposition groups. "I just gave this country two-and-a-half years in a prison," a small sacrifice compared with others who have been in jail longer, he says.

"In prison, I was a little bit confused if I was right or wrong [for criticizing the president]. But since I came out, I saw I was right because a lot of people supported me ... and a lot of people believed in me and my ideas. Today, I believe more and more in these ideas.... We have to be a more democratic country," says Abbou.

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