Tunis, Tunisia, 13 November 2005
Under the incredulous eyes of the participants at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), journalists and human rights defenders were manhandled, insulted, and then violently beaten.
At 09.30 am on Monday, November 14, 2005, at the Place d’Afrique in Tunis, more than 30 plainclothes policemen impatiently awaited international and Tunisian delegates and members of civil society.
Omar Mestiri, Director of the online magazine Kalima and a founder member of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie – CNLT) was seized as soon as he arrived at the site for the meeting of the coordinating committee of the Citizens’ Summit on the Information Society (CSIS).
Bombarded with blows and insults, Mr. Mestiri kept his calm, before he was able to break away from the group of plainclothes policemen.
The 30 men in plainclothes first laid into Om Zied, the chief editor of Kalima magazine, a publication that investigates corruption, documents attacks on human rights, and highlights the improper operations of the Tunisian legal system, and facts of society.
Faced with incessant aggression by the authorities, Om Zied, a member of the CNLT (an organisation supported by the Dutch section of Amnesty International, amongst others) made his way to a taxi, and left the site.
The law enforcement agents shouted, manhandled, and tried to physically intimidate the on-site Tunisian journalists.
When members of international NGOs, such as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Human Rights Watch, the Danish Human Rights Institute and other civil society representatives tried to intervene, the police officers moved away, and manhandled the international delegates in turn.
“They grabbed hold of me and shook me violently as I sought to appeal for calm”, explains an infuriated Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director of APC.
“There is democracy in Tunisia, but this is a bad lot”, shouted one of the police officers before beating Omar Mestiri about the head, then on his back. Several taxis were called and flight was then possible.
This article was written in an apartment in the Passage area, in the centre of Tunis, where CNLT has its permanent headquarters. There, the telephone is blocked, and so are several websites.
CNLT permanent member and researcher, sociologist Sami Nasr explained to us that these repressive measures are a common occurrence, but mentions that “police brutality is particularly virulent against initiatives such as the CSIS”.
This fringe event of the WSIS, which is linked to it, but held outside the exhibition hall, is an initiative co-organised by independent Tunisian NGOs, the Tunisian free press, and international NGOs.
The event, which is under a lot of pressure from the Tunisian authorities, is concerned with issues raised in the WSIS, but which do not have repercussions or a significant impact on internet governance negotiations.
Human rights and freedom of the press are a part of it. “We are not prepared to let this intimidation block our democratic will, the CSIS will take place,” Mestiri finally adds, in a decided tone.