Poses as Internet champion but jails its Internet users

Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders today voiced outrage that an international congress on the digital divide is being held in Tunisia, which is assuming an increasingly important role in international bodies regulating the Internet and yet is one of the most repressive countries as regards its own Internet users.

The congress is being staged in Tunis from 14 to 16 October by the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) and is viewed as a preparatory encounter for the next World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the second stage of which is scheduled to take place in Tunis in 2005.

"The WSIS is a major event for the Internet's development and the summit's member states must take action to prevent the Internet's future from being dictated by nations that repress freedom of expression," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said.

The Tunisian authorities are still holding a cyber-dissident, Zouhair Yahyaoui. Using the pseudonym Ettounsi, which means "The Tunisian" in Arabic, Yahyaoui founded the online magazine TUNeZINE in July 2001 to distribute opposition documents online and thereby provide information about the fight for democracy and freedoms in Tunisia. He was one of the first to publish a letter to the president by Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui criticising the judicial system.

He was arrested by plain-clothes police in an Internet café on 4 June 2002 and was subjected to interrogation that included three sessions of "suspension," a form of torture in which the victim is suspended by the arms with his feet barely touching the ground. On 10 July 2002, the Tunis appeal court sentenced him to two years in prison for "spreading false news."

Further evidence of Tunisia's cynicism towards the WSIS has been President Ben Ali's decision to appoint Habib Ammar to head the preparatory committee for the summit's second stage. As a former national guard commander and interior minister, Ammar actively participated in repression for many years. "During the period when he was interior minister, the ministry's facilities were transformed into a detention and torture centre," according to TRIAL and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

These two organisations recently lodged a criminal complaint against Ammar with the Canton of Geneva's general prosecutor but the prosecutor's office shelved the complaint on the grounds that the Swiss Confederation gives immunity from arrest and detention to state representatives of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is organising the WSIS.

The goal of the summit is to narrow the digital divide between rich and poor countries, but it also supposed to adopt a declaration of principle on nations' policies towards the Internet. Many NGOs specialising in human rights are concerned about the declaration's current draft, which has been heavily influenced by those countries that are the most repressive regarding the Internet.