The United States expressed serious concern Thursday over the imprisonment of two Tunisian lawyers who had criticized the government in Tunis. The two dissident lawyers were sentenced in separate cases in the last week.
The Bush administration has praised the Tunisian government for its reform views on economic policy and women's rights.
But it has been critical of its overall human rights record, and is now making clear its displeasure over the jailing, in the span of a week, of the two dissident lawyers.
Reports from Tunis say lawyer Mohammed Abou was sentenced three and a half years in prison April 28 for an Internet article in which he compared conditions in Tunisian jails to those of the notorious Abu Graib prison in Iraq.
The second lawyer, Fauzi Ben M'Rad, was sentenced to four months in prison Tuesday for remarks critical of the government made in a courtroom outside the capital as he was pleading a routine case.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the United State has been following the cases of the two men closely and is very concerned about their situation:
"These two were convicted and given jail sentences following their public criticism of the government," he said. "We've expressed our concerns to the government of Tunisia both in Washington and in Tunis, reiterating that respect for the right to free and peaceful expression, association and assembly is an essential element of democracy."
Mr. Boucher said in a meeting with Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali last year, President Bush called on the Tunisian government to match its considerable economic and social accomplishments with comparable progress in political reform and respect for human rights.
The spokesman said that remains the U.S. approach.
In its annual report on human rights conditions worldwide in late February, the State Department praised Tunisia's respect for the religious freedom of minorities, as well for the rights of women and children.
However, it called the country's overall human rights record poor, and cited serious abuses including torture and physical abuse of detainees by security forces.
It said the Tunis government was intolerant of public criticism and used intimidation, including criminal investigations and arbitrary arrests, to discourage dissent by human rights and opposition activists.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has also criticized the prosecution of Mr. Abou and urged his immediate release.
A representative of the group attended Mr. Abou's one-day trial last week in which the lawyer was sentenced on several charges including insulting the judiciary.
Human Rights Watch said that instead of jailing critics like Mr. Abou, Tunisia should be abolishing laws that criminalize freedom of expression.