Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the severe beating that human rights activist and online journalist Zouhaïer Makhlouf received from police officers who arrested him at his home on 24 April. His arrest seems to have been partly motivated by a desire to prevent him meeting a prominent French lawyer on a visit to Tunisia.
Another independent journalist, Taoufik Ben Brik, is meanwhile about to be released on completing a six-month jail sentence.
“We are deeply shocked to learn that a peaceful human rights activist has been the victim of a savage and gratuitous attack by the police,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The authorities accuse Zouhaïer Makhlouf of sullying the country’s image but this act of brutality by the Tunisian police and the methods they use to intimidate journalists show that the opposite is the case.”
Eight plain-clothes police arrived at Makhlouf’s home at 5:15 p.m. on 24 April and said they had come to arrest him. As they had no warrant, Makhlouf refused to go with them. The policemen then beat him in front of his wife and children, aged 8 and 12, and forcibly took him to Borj Ouzir police station in Ariana, a town just outside Tunis. He was subjected to further mistreatment there but managed to send his lawyer an SMS message alerting him to the situation.
During an interrogation, the police officers referred to two videos he had recently produced on various matters including the case of Sabrine Khemiri, a student who is currently detained. She filed a complaint against the Tunis police officers who attacked her in March.
Makhlouf’s lawyer, Imen Triki, said he thought the videos were just one of the reasons for his arrest, pointing out that Makhlouf, along with other activists and human rights defenders, had been invited to a dinner that evening with Christian Charrière-Bournazel, the former head of the Paris bar association.
Told of Makhlouf’s arrest, Charrière-Bournazel and two other lawyers went to the police station, arriving at 11:30 p.m., but the policemen on duty said Makhlouf was not there. Makhlouf finally managed to reach them at midnight and tell them he had been released. They immediately went to his home, where they saw he was covered in blood and had sustained injuries to the face. They also saw an unmarked police car parked nearby.
Makhlouf, whose home has been under constant surveillance by plain-clothes police for months, told Reporters Without Borders this morning that his nose is broken. He also said his children were still very shocked.
A reporter for the news website Assabilonline (http://www.assabilonline.net/), Makhlouf spent 116 days in detention following his arrest on 20 October 2009 in connection with a video about environmental problems in the Nabeul industrial zone. Accused of making the video without a permit, he was given a three-month sentence on 1 December (http://en.rsf.org/tunisia-jailed-online-journalist-s-trial-23-11-2009,35070.html and http://en.rsf.org/tunisia-online-reporter-transferred-to-03-12-2009,35202.html).
He should have been released on 18 January, but he was kept in prison and a court sentenced him to an additional one month in prison and ordered him to pay 6,000 dinars (3,165 euros) in damages.
Taoufik Ben Brik is meanwhile due to be released at any moment. Arrested on 29 October for writing articles critical of the government for two French news media, the newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur and the website Mediapart, he was given a six-month jail term on a trumped-up charge on 26 November and was sent to serve his sentence in Siliana, 130 km southwest of the capital.
A court in the southern mining district of Gafsa is due tomorrow to resume hearing journalist Fahem Boukeddous’ appeal against his six-year jail sentence. Charrière-Bournazel wrote to President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali today voicing concern about Boukeddous and his co-defendants and stressing what is at stake for Tunisia.
“At a time when Tunisia wants to establish a partnership with Europe, it is inconceivable that it should not adopt European legal standards in the domain human rights and freedom,” the letter said.