Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In October 2004, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 17 years, won a fourth term as president in elections. These polls, as well as legislative elections held the same day, were marred by an opposition boycott and public apathy and were criticized for providing few opportunities for public participation in the political process. Tunisia's press freedoms remained restrictive, and the government continued to crack down on journalists and human rights defenders.
Nationalist pressures for Tunisian independence began in the 1930s under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, leader of the Neo-Doustour party. Bourguiba became the country's first president when Tunisia gained independence in 1956 after more than 70 years as a French protectorate. Bourguiba's vision for Tunisia led to significant initiatives in the areas of social and economic development, including the promotion of one of the most liberal personal status codes in the Arab world; it ceded significant rights to women and remains unmatched in the Arab world today. He also furthered education and spending on economic development projects. However, political rights and civil liberties were severely restricted under Bourguiba's rule.
In 1987, Ben Ali, formerly the minister of the interior, led a bloodless coup, deposing the aging Bourguiba and promising to open up the political system. After an initial period of minor political reform, Ben Ali cracked down harshly on the Islamist opposition. Over time, the government's repressive practices extended beyond the Islamist opposition; hundreds of dissidents have been jailed over the last 15 years for peacefully exercising their civil liberties.
Tunisia's dismal human rights record has been attacked by international human rights groups, and more discreetly so by the international community. The European Union has quietly linked human rights and assistance in its agreements clauses with the North African state. The United States has recently been more openly critical, and during a visit to Tunis in December 2003, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell praised Tunisia's partnership in the war against terrorism, but urged the government to pursue political reforms. However, the government's human rights record has not improved since Amnesty International issued, in 2003, a 40-page report describing how government opponents are subjected to arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, and imprisonment.
The presidential election, which Ben Ali won with 94.52 percent of the vote, pointed to a likely continuation of that trend. Ben Ali ran against thee other contenders, none of whom garnered more than 4 percent of the vote amid opposition boycotts and claims of manipulation, voter intimidation and government restrictions. Ben Ali was backed by business groups, trade unions and two opposition parties. Concurrent legislative elections initially featured 300 candidates from seven political parties competing for 182 seats. However, a major opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, pulled out its candidates at the last minute, arguing that the vote would be a sham.
The United States expressed disappointment, saying there had been little opportunity for public political participation. After Ben Ali's reelection, Amnesty International urged him to respect the country's obligations under Tunisian law and international human rights standards and put an end to human rights violations prevalent for the past decade.
Tunisians cannot change their government democratically. The 1959 constitution accords the president significant powers, including the right to select the prime minister and cabinet, to rule by decree when the legislature is not in session, and to appoint the governors of Tunisia's 23 provinces. The legislature, by contrast, serves as a rubber stamp for the president's policies and does not provide a check on executive power. Presidential elections lack any pretense of competition. A constitutional referendum in 2002 removed the three-term limit on the presidency and raised to 75 the maximum age to become president, which means that Ben Ali will be eligible to stand again for office in 2009. Although parliamentary elections are contrived to allow for the appearance of a multiparty legislature, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, or RCD) holds a majority of the seats. After one opposition party, the Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom was legalized last year - eight years after its formation - the number of authorized political parties in the country increased to seven.
Tunisia was ranked 39 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption in the government exists, including petty corruption and bribe taking by security forces. The government announced the creation of a body tasked with reducing corruption, but there were no public reports of its activities.
Tunisia's press freedoms are among the most restricted in the Arab world. The government controls domestic broadcasting and owns or controls six of the eight mainstream dailies. It also uses newsprint subsidies and financial control as a means for indirect censorship of the private press. During the presidential and general election campaigns, state-run radio and television provided full coverage to the ruling RCD but hardly any to the opposition candidates, according to local and international observers. Tunisian journalists critical of the regime continue to be harassed, threatened, imprisoned, physically attacked, and censored. In November 2003, journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui was released after almost a year and a half in prison. However, on the same day, Internet opposition journalist Naziha Rejiba received an eight-month suspended prison sentence on currency-exchange charges. In August 2004, plainclothes security men assaulted journalist Slim Boukhedr after he asked questions implying Ben Ali influenced the judiciary in a particular case. Abdallah Zouari, a journalist with the Islamist opposition newspaper Al-Fajr, was released in September 2004, after serving a 13-month sentence. The government restricted access to a number of Internet websites, including those belonging to Tunisian opposition and Islamist groups. In July 2004, six Internet users accused of being Islamist extremists and plotting terror attacks were each given a 13-year prison sentence, reportedly after confessions extracted under duress.
While Islam is the state religion, the government allows for the free practice of all religions as long as the public order is not disturbed. The government controls and subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of prayer leaders. The 1988 law on mosques stipulates that only those appointed by the government may lead activities in the mosques, which are required to remain closed except during prayer times.
Academic freedom is severely restricted. The government closely monitored university staff and students for any Islamist activity, and used uniformed police on campuses to discourage expressions of dissent. Academic publications were submitted to the government prior to publication, and professors avoided teaching classes on sensitive subjects such as civil liberties and political systems.
Freedom of association and assembly is sharply curtailed. Politically oriented nongovernmental organizations remain unauthorized. The government refuses to legalize most independent human rights organizations.
Human rights defenders and democracy activists were subjected to increased government harassment during the year, including physical beatings, heavy police surveillance, and travel bans. In January, an assailant believed to be working with the state security services violently attacked prominent human rights activist and Internet journalist Sihem Bensedrine outside her home. The repression of dissidents increased around the elections period. Jallel Zoughlami, a known critic of Ben Ali and founder of an unauthorized monthly newspaper, and his brother Nejib were detained on September 22, shortly after they were attacked in the center of Tunis by several men. In October, two plainclothes policemen beat opposition activist Hamma Hammami in the street. Another activist, Moncef Marzouki, leader of the unauthorized political party Republican Congress (Congres pour la Republique, or CPR) was stopped and interrogated for three hours at Tunis airport when he was on his way to Paris in October to join a conference of the Tunisian opposition.
There is no independent judiciary; the government has used the courts to convict and imprison critics. Human Rights Watch released a report in July 2004 accusing the government of holding around 40 of the country's more than 500 political prisoners in solitary confinement, some for up to 13 years. They are all Islamist members of the banned Nahdha Party and were sentenced by military courts in 1992 in unfair trials. The government has denied the accusation. Amnesty International has expressed concern that a new antiterrorism law, passed in December 2003, would further erode human rights through its broad definition of terrorism and provisions for extended pretrial detention. The law came amid a climate of rampant abuse, including torture and ill-treatment of defendants, lack of guarantees for a free trial, harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention.
Women enjoy substantial rights, and the government has worked to advance women's rights in the areas of property ownership and support to divorced women. However, inheritance law still discriminates against women. Unlike in many countries in the Arab world, a child's rights to citizenship are conveyed through either the mother or the father.