Jailed Tunisian Human Rights Activist Attends First Court Hearing

Published July 8th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Sihem Bensedrine, an outspoken Tunisian human rights activist who was jailed last month, appeared Thursday in court to face charges of defaming the judiciary, in a case that has triggered an international outcry, said AFP. 

Bensedrine, the spokeswoman for the National Council for Civil Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), appeared before a Tunis court but refused to respond to the judge, who dismissed a request for her release but allowed the activist to see her husband and two sons. 

Scores of sympathizers, many of them women, swamped the court chamber, brandishing photos of the accused to show their support. 

No less than 200 defense lawyers also came on her behalf, but only 20 were allowed into the courtroom, while scores of international diplomats waited in the corridors. 

Bensedrine, who also runs an online magazine called Kalima, is accused of "spreading false information of a nature to disturb public order." 

She was arrested on June 26 and handed over to the Manouba women's prison west of the capital. 

Bensedrine had taken part on June 17 in a human rights debate on Al Mustaquilla television, a satellite channel which broadcasts from London and is owned by a Tunisian opposition figure, said the agency. 

Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) protested last year the assault on Bensedrine by police officers in Tunis. RSF Secretary General Robert Ménard had asked the Tunisian authorities "to quickly punish the police officers responsible for this incident, which is all the more worrisome when one considers that, on the same day, Sihem Bensedrine received a death threat."  

Robert Ménard added: "The harassment of human rights activists has become intolerable, especially since the late November closure of the Tunisian League of Human Rights." 

According to information collected by RSF, on December 15 2000, in the afternoon, plainclothes police officers assaulted Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri, secretary general of the National Committee for Rights in Tunisia (Comité national pour les libertés en Tunisie, CNLT) and Mohammed Bechri, coordinator of the National Committee for the Defense of Moncef Marzouki, as they were going to the ministry of health to give the minister a petition protesting Marzouki's improper dismissal from the Sousse Faculty of Medecine.  

Several police officers beat Bensedrine and Mohammed Bechri and forced them to leave.  

At the same time, Mestiri was thrown to the ground and repeatedly beaten by other police officers, who then drove him some sixty kilometres from Tunis and left him in the countryside. A few hours before the attack, Bensedrine found that her car had been searched. She found a knife in the back seat of her car, which she believes was left as a death threat, according to RSF. 

Her detention has raised new concerns over human rights in Tunisia, long accused by rights activists of committing torture, illegal imprisonment and the suppression of political and press freedoms. 

Earlier this week in Geneva, the UN secretary general's special representative for human rights, Hina Jilani, and the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, Abid Hussein, expressed "their strong concern over the human rights situation in Tunisia, particularly after Sihem Bensedrine's arrest." – Albawaba.com  



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