Tunisian human rights activist Mohamed Abu al Nashit has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison for publishing an article on-line about torture in Tunisian prisons. Meanwhile, al Jazeera reports that the Tunisian opposition is complaining that the authorities are using foul means to prevent their candidates from competing in local elections next month. Nasty place, Tunisia.
Last February, George Bush met with Tunisia's president bin Ali in the White House, From the press release:
They reviewed issues of regional concern, including Iraq, Middle East peace, cooperation in the global war on terrorism, and positive developments in Libya. They also exchanged views on President Bush's vision for the Greater Middle East, and prospects for greater economic and political opportunities for all Tunisians. The President welcomed the establishment of a Middle East Partnership Initiative office in Tunis. Tunisia has made great strides in ensuring equal participation by women in all sectors of society, and social and economic progress in Tunisia could give it a leading role in regional reform if this progress is now followed by needed political reform. The President emphasized to President Ben Ali his desire for Tunisia to move ahead in areas such as press freedom, the rights of Tunisians to organize and work peacefully for reform, the need for free and competitive elections, and equal justice under law. The United States is committed to working with Tunisia and all the countries of the Greater Middle East to achieve progress in these areas.
On February 28, 2005, the State Department released its 2004 human rights report for Tunisia:
The Government's human rights record remained poor, and the Government continued to commit serious abuses; however, the Government continued to demonstrate respect for the religious freedom of minorities, as well as the human rights of women and children. There were significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals. International observers were not allowed to inspect prisons, and lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained a serious problem. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights. The Government continued to impose significant restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. The Government restricted freedom of assembly and association. The Government remained intolerant of public criticism and used intimidation, criminal investigations, the court system, arbitrary arrests, residential restrictions, and travel controls (including denial of passports), to discourage criticism by human rights and opposition activists. Corruption was a problem.
So, just curious - since the Tunisian government is demonstrably not "mov[ing] ahead in areas such as press freedom, the rights of
Tunisians to organize and work peacefully for reform, the need for free
and competitive elections, and equal justice under law," does the Bush administration have anything to say?
In January 2004, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described Tunisia as such:
"Tunisia has been a voice for moderation. Tunisia has been a voice for regional harmony. Tunisia has been a voice for putting effort and resources into development rather than wasting them on arms races or conflict or weapons of mass destruction."
That's pretty hard hitting. What about more recently? In a press conference linked to the release of the human rights report mentioned above, the briefer was asked directly why Tunisia was ignored by the United States when Middle Eastern democracy and human rights came up. His answer?
"Tunisia -- my former boss, Lorne Craner was out there, I think, a couple of times. We have programs in Tunisia to try to help journalists and so on who are oppressed by the government. The space in that country is very, very limited and we're trying to open it up."
That's nice. At least he doesn't claim that "we publicly criticize Tunisia all the time," since that would be demonstrably untrue. But what about, say, a high level statement by Secretary Rice? A google site search comes up empty for "Rice" and "Tunisia" for 2005, as does a White House site search for "Bush" and "Tunisia", but I'm sure I could be missing something.
At any rate, as long as the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative is located in Tunis, and Tunisia continues to be a nasty, repressive place, and Tunisia gets no serious American pressure or criticism over its being a nasty, repressive place, it's going to be hard for anyone to take the MEPI seriously. So let's hope that the administration takes the opportunity of Mohamed Abu Nashit's sentencing and the opposition's complaints about interference in municipial elections as an opportunity to say something, anything, which might suggest that America cares.