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Bush, Tunisian President to Meet Wednesday - 2004-02-17


President Bush meets at the White House Wednesday with Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a key moderate Arab leader making his first official visit to Washington in 14 years. Mr. Ben Ali met Tuesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who raised U.S. concern about Tunisia's human rights record.

The White House meeting for Mr. Ben Ali reflects an increasingly close U.S. relationship with Tunisia, which the Bush administration has warmly praised for among other things encouraging neighboring Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi to renounce terrorism and give up weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. officials have also praised Tunisia's moderate role in Arab politics, including Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and Mr. Ben Ali's U.S. visit comes little more than a month before he plays host to a critical Arab League summit meeting in Tunis.

Secretary of State Powell, who visited Tunisia on a North African trip in December, met President Ben Ali at his Washington Hotel Tuesday in preparation for the White House meeting.

Emerging to talk to reporters after the hour-long meeting, Mr. Powell said he complimented Mr. Ben Ali on his government's efforts on issues including economic reform and women's rights, but also said he raised concerns about human rights conditions in Tunisia that he said would also be addressed at the White House.

"We had some continuing concerns with respect to political reform, with respect to media access and other similar issues where I think Tunisia could do more. And in a spirit of friendship, I laid out those items to him," he said. "My staff has been in touch with Tunisian counterparts to discuss these issues and I know it will be a matter for discussion with the President tomorrow. Tunisia is a good friend, a strong friend, one whose friendship we have appreciated over the many many years. And as we can with strong friends, you can discuss issues that are in contention."

The Tunisian government's human rights record has come under criticism from at least two private watchdog groups in advance of Mr. Ben Ali's White House visit.

The U.S.-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists last week urged President Bush to raise what it said was Tunisia's "deplorable" press freedom record with Mr. Ben Ali.

Human Rights Watch said Mr. Bush should publicly state that, what it termed Tunisia's "policies of repression," are incompatible with the administration's initiative for democracy in the Middle East.

A Human Rights Watch spokesman in Washington, Joe Stork, said Tunisia holds some 500 political prisoners, and allows virtually no critical media coverage of government policies. He said there is nothing moderate in the way Tunisian authorities "repress nearly all forms of dissent."

On a Washington visit last month, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia counseled patience on political reform, saying democratic progress will follow social and economic gains Tunisia has already made.