Tunisia frees journalist critical of government

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A Tunisian journalist whose six-month jail sentence for assault was condemned by international rights groups said after his release yesterday he was unbowed and would write a book about his experiences.

Taoufik Ben Brik was found guilty of attacking a woman motorist during an argument in the street. He and his supporters said the charges were concocted to punish him for his criticism of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“I will stay true to my courage,” Ben Brik told Reuters in a telephone interview soon after he was released on completion of his sentence. “In the coming days I will start writing a book about this miserable story.”

Officials denied there was any political motive behind the trial, but Ben Brik’s case focused international scrutiny on human rights in Tunisia, a former French colony dominated by 73-year-old Ben Ali since he came to power 23 years ago.

Freedom of speech campaign group Reporters Without Borders said yesterday Ben Brik should never have been in prison as the case against him was “made up from start to finish.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had raised the Ben Brik case with his Tunisian counterpart earlier this month and was relieved the journalist was now free.

But Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued in response to Kouchner’s comments, said Ben Brik was jailed because a court had found him guilty of assault.
“It is … important to remind Mr. Kouchner that the crimes for which Mr. Ben Brik had been sentenced to prison had nothing to do with freedom of the press,” the ministry said.

The journalist said his experience in prison, where his relatives said he became dangerously ill, would leave a permanent mark on him.
“The damage has been done, and this damage will always cause me fear,” he told Reuters from his home in the Tunisian capital. “Even though I am free, I never feel safe here.”

Ben Brik said he would soon be travelling to Paris, though he denied he would be leaving Tunisia permanently. He said France was “the only country that defended me”, referring to the French government’s criticism of his jail term.

Tunisia is particularly sensitive to European criticism because it is preparing to apply to the European Union for “advanced status”, which could give it preferential trade terms.

Tunisia’s economy is one of the most open in the region. It depends on tourists, including many from the EU, and growing investments from European firms.

Pic: President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisa



Source: www.af.reuters.com