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US Concerned by Actions Against Tunisian Democracy Activist


The United States Monday expressed deep concern about actions by the Tunisian government against a democracy activist and members of her family. The State Department said authorities in Tunis mounted a harassment campaign against Neila Charchour Hachicha after she spoke at a Washington policy institute in January.

The State Department is expressing deep concern about the treatment of Neila Charchour Hachicha that it says is part of a broader pattern of harassment of democracy activists in Tunisia, despite that government's stated commitment to reform.

Hachicha, founder of a moderate opposition faction in Tunisia, the Liberal Mediterranean Party, received widespread attention after criticizing the Tunisian government at a seminar in January at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, and in a subsequent interview with al-Jazeera television.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said Hachicha and family members have since been the target of punitive actions including the confiscation of her car, the jailing of her husband over an eight-year-old real estate transaction, and the circulation of doctored photos of a family member suggesting indecent behavior.

Spokesman Ereli said Hachicha herself has been subjected to long interrogations by authorities, and said the actions reflect a wider campaign of harassment running contrary to the Tunis government's professed policy of tolerance and openness:

"What we're concerned about is a pattern of activity by the Tunisian authorities against well-intentioned reformers and activists who work within the system peacefully to help improve human rights, advance the cause of democracy and political participation by the citizens of Tunisia," said Adam Ereli. "[The action against] Ms. Hachicha is but the latest in a regular series of actions by the government that are contrary to peaceful democratic development, peaceful citizen involvement in the affairs of the country."

Spokesman Ereli said the measures against Hachicha follow other actions the United States has expressed concern about, including the ongoing imprisonment of lawyer Mohammed Abou - jailed in 2005 after criticizing the government - continued disruptions of civil society organizations, and recent moves to curb the ability of legal opposition groups to express their views.

At the same time, he said the human rights situation in Tunisia is a mixed picture, noting the United States had commended the government of President Zine Abindine Ali only a month ago for releasing more than 1,600 prisoners, including 70 members of a banned political party and the editor of an Islamic newspaper.

U.S. officials had in past years held out Tunisia as a model of reform in the Arab world for among other things its advancement of women. But they have grown more critical of curbs on dissent by President Ali, who won re-election in 2004 with what was said to have been more than 94 per cent of votes cast.

In a commentary last week in the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, Hachicha said as a political moderate, her activities were tolerated for several years, even though her party was never legalized.

She said that official repression began only after her visit to Washington and appearance on al-Jazeera, when her views reached millions of people, rather than a relative few on the Internet.

She said she had lately come under pressure from friends and relatives to withdraw from politics, citing that as evidence that most Tunisians do not want to admit they are "terrorized" by authorities.