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Human Rights Groups Call On Bush To Press Tunisian President For Freedom and Reforms

February 18, 2004

President Bush is meeting with Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali at the White House today. Washington sees Tunisia as a key ally in the war on terror but human rights groups are calling on Bush to press Ben Ali to allow more freedoms and dissent in Tunisia where the government routinely beats dissidents and rights campaigners and muzzles the press. [includes transcript]

President Bush is scheduled to meet with Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali at the White House today. It is the first visit to Washington by an Arab leader since Bush unveiled his so-called initiative for democracy in the Middle East.

Tunisia is seen by Washington as a key ally in the war on terror. They receive modest U.S. military aid, and the two countries conduct joint military exercises.

Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday saluted Ben Ali as a strong friend and praised the Tunisian government but advised him to put more effort into political reform.

Human rights groups have called on Bush to press Ben Ali to allow more freedoms and dissent. The Tunisian Human Rights League, the country’s only legal independent rights group, reports the government routinely beats dissidents and rights campaigners and muzzles the press.

Ben Ali took power from Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless palace coup in 1987. In the past three presidential elections, Ben Ali was reelected with an official tally of more than 99 percent. He is eligible to stand for reelection in 2004 and again in 2009 after parliament approved constitutional amendments.

  • Kamel Labidi, an independent journalist and former director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International. He left Tunisia in 1996 because he was denied the right to work. He joins us on the phone from his home in Cairo, Egypt.
  • Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to two guests, Kamel Labidi, a journalist, former director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International and Mahdi Bray, of the American Society Freedom Foundation.

AMY GOODMAN: Kamel Labidi. Can you talk about the situation in Tunisia?

KAMEL LABIDI: Thank you for inviting me to give my views on Tunisia on the occasion of the president’s visit to the U.S. Tunisians do not think much of this visit because it comes at a time when the Bush administration states its commitment to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, but at the same time there are still heavy dictatorships. It might be a good opportunity for President Bush to show that he is serious about his commitments, because it’s otherwise — his commitment to democracy — to see democracy spread in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights groups have called on President Bush to press the Tunisian president, Ben Ali, to allow more freedoms and dissent. The Tunisian Human Rights League, the country’s only legal human right’s group, reports that the government routinely beats dissidents and right’s campaigners and muzzles the press.

AMY GOODMAN: You yourself left, Kamel Labidi Tunisia in 1996 because you were denied the right to work. Why?

KAMEL LABIDI: Well, since Ben Ali came to power 17 years ago and promised to democratize Tunisia, he overthrew in a bloodless coup his predecessor, and promised to push the country on the way to democracy. We have never stopped trying since he came to power, and the — the press has been mute, journalists have been silenced. Some of them have been forced from the country. Others remain silent others were thrown jails. They have to pay a heavy price. If you want to express your thoughts and — be an independent journalist and generally, it’s still going on. One of the independent journalists was beaten up in the streets — the Tunisian government is not ready to accept any defensive — dissenting view. Other journalists have been — I believe there are journalists in prison, and there have been — they have been kept there since the early 1990’s. A few months ago one journalist was released from prison after 15 years imprisonment.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Kamel Labidi, an independent journalist, former director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International. He’s talking to us from his home in Cairo, he left Tunisia in 1996. Mahdi Bray on the line from Washington, D.C., Director of the American-Muslim society, Freedom Foundation. What are you doing today as the president meets with the president of Tunisia?

MAHDI BRAY: We are participating in a massive phone blitz all across the country, asking people to call in to first of all protest even the very visit of Ben Ali here. And to be received — I think it’s the height of hypocrisy, we turn around and we drop bombs on the people of Iraq, under the standard of protecting human rights and out came one despot out of a hole. And then we invite another despot to have come and have dinner in Washington, D.C., at the White House. I think that’s deplorable. It’s once again an example of how this administration talks north, but indeed walks south. It is indeed this type of double standard that’s perceived while the Muslim world invite Muslims and Arabs known throughout the region that certainly takes away from any credibility in terms of our ability to — as a government, to interact with the people of the region. The truth of matter is, Ben Ali is indeed a dictator. He has a dismal human right’s record that’s documented not only by human rights organizations but by our own state department’s report on Tunisia and the report of human rights speaks in glaring terms about the atrocities that take place in Tunisia, but it’s being held. We are spending a tremendous amount of money to gloss over their abuses and their human rights abuses, and — but I’m an old country boy. You can call — you can’t call a mule a horse when — Tunisia is an oppressive regime and Ben Ali is responsible for this repression. We are doing a great disservice to the people in the region by receiving him here in America giving him the photo op that he’s doing. We are asking the people to call the White House all over the country. Yesterday we were in front of the State Department and we were protesting his presence here because I think it sends the wrong signal to Muslims. I think it sends the wrong signal on the issue of human rights in general.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, Mahdi Bray I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Muslim-American Society, Freedom Foundation. And Kamel Labidi, independent journalist from Tunisia who now lives in Cairo in exile. We tried to get the Tunisian embassy on the line. They did not return our calls.

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