For Immediate Release: January 14, 2011
New York City – This morning – in remarkable scenes from Tunisia in response to mounting public protests over economic problems, official corruption, and the denial of basic political freedoms – President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali imposed a state of emergency, announced the dissolution of parliament, dismissed his government and promised new elections within six months. This afternoon, he fled the country leaving the army in charge. The protests that toppled the Ben Ali dictatorship are a logical result of his failure to respond to the basic needs of its people for freedom and justice and economic opportunity.
“For nearly 25 years, Ben Ali has run one of the most repressive states in North Africa, denying basic freedoms of expression, assembly and association, jailing and forcing in to exile non-violent critics, undermining the independence of the judiciary and rigging elections to ensure the dominance of the ruling party,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “The Tunisian government has long ignored calls from activists within its borders and from the international community to improve its dismal human rights record. President Ben Ali’s repressive system was no longer able to hold back the full impact of the problems confronting the Tunisian people and it is being swept away.”
As early as 1993, Human Rights First (then the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) raised concerns about the situation in Tunisia. The group published an assessment of Ben Ali’s first six years in office: “Promise Unfulfilled: Human Rights in Tunisia Since 1987.” It concluded:
“Tunisia has seen the independence of the judiciary undermined by the encroachment of military courts into civilian matters; freedom of expression has been severely constrained and freedom of association tightly reined in; lawyers have been subjected to harassment and intimidation, and discouraged from representing unpopular clients. Thus, safeguards that are the bedrock of any society in which basic human freedoms are upheld and protected have been undermined…”
Echoing those same sentiments in remarks in Doha yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted with respect to Arab leaders that, “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever.”
At this tumultuous time, Human Rights First is calling on the government authorities remaining in Tunisia to refrain from violence against unarmed protesters. It is also notes that, as soon as possible, Tunisia must set out on a new path towards democratic elections so that the people can freely choose a government that will represent them, and will govern in accordance with the rule of law and respect for international human rights standards.
Hicks concluded, “The U.S. government must make good on Secretary Clinton’s pledge, made earlier this week in Doha, ‘to support those who step up to solve the problems that we and you face,’ and to ‘build real partnerships with societies that are on the path to long-term stability and progress.’ That support will be essential to securing a more peaceful and democratic future for Tunisia.”