Meeting Tunisian civil society - and Tunisian secret police
  The strategy of intimidation
  14 November 2005. Participants of a workshop organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women have experienced the everyday reality of social-political activism under an authoritarian repressive regime. At least 40-50 plain-clothes police and security agents blocked the entrance, pushed away by-standers, and generated an atmosphere of intimidation.

The workshop was supposed to bring the international partners of the Boell Foundation together with members of the independent (i.e. not government-controlled) civil society. But the Tunisian authorities were not willing to let this happen. Those participants who arrived early were able to enter the building of the meeting, but at the minute that the meeting was supposed to start, a cloud of plain-clothes security officers (many in suits and ties) moved to the front door and blocked the building from then on. Everyone approaching the building, including journalists and lawyers, was pushed away. Even a member of the European union delegation was prevented from entering the meeting rooms. As the meeting went on, police outside cleared the whole street and did not even allow people to get near the building.

  Inside, members of Tunisian and international civil society are discussing issues such as freedom of speech and the right to free assembly... while outside plain-clothes police are blocking the door and are sending a group of international journalists away.
  Inside the blocked building, members of Tunisian civil society talked about the human rights situation in their country which is overshadowing the summit process. Essia Belhassen from the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said:
We wanted to meet here to talk about a just and equal information society, but again we have to talk about our lost rights - freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other human rights which have been taken from us. While we are talking about the WSIS we are forbidden from distributing our publications, from holding local meetings and workshops, from participating in international meetings.

During most of the Tunis phase of the WSIS process, Tunisian civil society groups had tried to use the international spotlight that has been put on the summit to achieve improvements of the human rights situation in Tunisia. However, as the situation grew worse rather than better, some of them drew out of the process and are now boycotting the summit.

Yet the debate at the workshop did not only revolve around human rights. Participants discussed recent developments of the WSIS negotiations, the digital divide and other North-South issues, peer-to-peer and intellectual property rights, etc. For Tunisian civil society groups, these different strands of the WSIS debate connect in very practical ways: two weeks prior to the summit, the host organisation of the workshop had its internet access and its phone lines cut.

Despite repression and intimidation, the Tunisian human rights activists seem determined to continue their struggle. An example for particular determination is currently being set by seven members of journalists unions, socialist, communist and democratic parties, and a lawyers association. For one month, they have been on hunger strike. They are demanding the release of political prisoners and the establishment of freedom of speech and freedom of association. As some of the workshop participants visited the hunger strikers, one of them was moved to a hospital, weakened after more than four weeks without food.


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