Reporters Without Borders is relieved to learn that the Tunisian authorities lifted their supervision of journalist Abdallah Zouari on 2 August, ending seven years of house arrest and a total of 18 years of police and judicial persecution. The police surveillance was lifted three days before it was officially due to end tomorrow. Several local newspapers had prematurely reported this on 31 July.
“This is an important step for Zouari, who had been hounded without interruption since 1991,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hope he will finally be free to move about the country, choose where to live and resume working as a journalist, without control or obstruction by the authorities. But past developments have taught us to be wary and we will be watching to see whether the authorities keep their word and whether Zouari really is free.”
The onetime editor of Al Fajr, a weekly newspaper that was the mouthpiece of the Islamist party Ennahad, Zouari was charged with membership of an illegal organisation and was given an 11-year jail sentence on 12 April 1991, at the end of a trial of Ennahad leaders. The party has since been banned in Tunisia.
When Zouari was freed on 6 June 2002, on completing his sentence, the authorities announced that he would be subject to five years of administrative supervision, which resulted in threats and acts of intimidation against him and his family, further periods in prison and, from 2004 onwards, internal exile in Zarzis (400 km southeast of Tunis), where the police followed all of his movements and kept his home under surveillance.
He was given an eight-month jail sentence on 4 September 2002, at the end of a trial which his friends and family were unable to attend. In a carefully-staged trial, a Zarzis court sentenced him to another four months in prison on 18 July 2003 on a defamation charge. The same court sentenced him to a further nine months in prison on 29 August of the same year for “refusing to comply with an administrative control decision.” He got further 13-month sentence in October 2003 for “failure to respect administrative surveillance.”
All these sentences were cumulative. His family was meanwhile banned several times from visiting him in Zarzis. Zouari staged several hunger strikes in protest against the administrative persecution. The supervision was due to end in June 2007, but the authorities notified him verbally that it would be extended by 26 months, until 5 August 2009.
“The police disappeared from around my house on 2 August,” Zouari told Reporters Without Borders. “No official contacted me to confirm that my house arrest was being lifted. I tried unsuccessfully to contact the justice ministry and interior ministry for an explanation about the reports in several newspapers that they had already been lifted.”
Zouari added: “I have been able to move about in the south of the country without surveillance since 2 August. I am happy to be finally able to relax with my family in Zarzis. I hope to be able to move about the entire country including Tunis, to which I plan to move on 8 August. I hope to be able to go there without being arrested again.”