- As Tunisia seeks stronger economic and military ties with the United States and the European Union (EU), human rights groups urge US and EU authorities to demand reforms of the Tunisian regime. New hopes are built as Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is to meet with US President George W. Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
Much is at stake for the government of President Ben Ali. Within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, Tunisian products and citizens may get full access to the internal market of almost 30 European states by 2010. Recently, a more active US policy towards North Africa also opens up the possibility of a US-Tunisian free trade agreement, increased US military aid and closer intelligence cooperation in the "war against terrorism".
However, each time EU or US representatives discuss a closer cooperation with Tunisia, American and European civil society groups are staging protests. While Tunisia bills itself as a developed and moderate Muslim nation, a picture of lack of democracy and systematic human rights violations - in particular against the press and Islamists - is beginning to emerge.
This weekend, the US-based group Human Rights Watch used the occasion of President Ben Ali's upcoming visit in Washington to "call or an end to repression." The group demands that President Bush should "publicly state that Tunisia's policies of repression are incompatible with his administration's initiative on democracy in the Middle East."
- The credibility of President Bush's plan to promote democracy for the Middle East is on the line," said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch in a press release issued on Saturday. He added that President Ben Ali's government "tolerates almost no dissent. Bush needs to speak candidly and publicly to demonstrate that his initiative is serious."
Tunisia's ruling party dominates political life nationally and locally. In 2002 the Tunisian parliament approved constitutional amendments making President Ben Ali, who came to power in a coup in 1987, eligible to stand for re-election in October 2004 and again in 2009. In the past three presidential elections, Mr Ben Ali was re-elected with an official tally of more than 99 percent.
Tunisia has few genuinely independent organisations. Apart from a few low-circulation magazines, none of the print and broadcast media offer critical coverage of government policies. Journalists, editors and publishers of internet sites are regularly imprisoned for writing critical opinions or reports.
Yet, Tunisia is one of the most developed countries in North Africa and the Middle East, with a stable economy, matured social and gender rights and a modern appearance when presenting itself to its many visitors. "Tunisia should be leading the way on democracy in the region, given its economic and social achievements, and the status of women," commented Mr Stork. "Instead it has moved backwards."
Tunisia is believed to have some 500 political prisoners. Most of these are suspected Islamists who were convicted after what Human Rights Watch calls "unfair trials on non-violent charges such as membership in a political organisation outlawed by the government."
- The government claims it is simply applying the law to curb illegal acts by extremists, says Mr Stork. "But those who are jailed and harassed encompass a wide range of dissidents, including non-violent Islamists, secular liberals, leftists and human rights activists," the human rights activist added.
While the US group is preparing another campaign to promote human rights in Tunisia during President Ben Ali's visit to New York, other civil society groups are continuing the battle against Tunisia's latest intent to promote itself as a modern democratic state.
Tunisia will host in 2005 the World Summit on the Information Society, which is termed a scandal by freedom of expression groups. Given the Ben Ali government's repression of the national press, weighty press freedom groups are running a massive protest campaign, including legal action against the Tunisian organiser - one of whom is said to have been a former torturer of journalists.
As a response to the growing pressure, the US government and EU authorities have increasingly raised the question of human rights when meeting with Tunisian representatives. In a recent meeting with President Ben Ali, US Secretary of State Colin Powell urged political reforms and greater openness in Tunisia. According to Mr Powell, President Ben Ali had promised to enhance reforms.
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