28 May 2013

Tunisian blogger faces military court for criticizing hospital staff

The trial of a blogger before a military court in Tunisia after he peacefully expressed his opinion on the internet is worrying evidence of the state of freedom of expression in the country, said Amnesty International.

The trial against Hakim Ghanmi begins on 29 May in Sfax Military Court, in south-eastern Tunisia.

Amnesty International is calling for charges against him to be dropped as he appears to be prosecuted solely for peacefully expressing his views about the treatment of patients in a military hospital by the hospital director.

Ghanmi is being charged with “undermining the reputation of the army”, “defamation of a public official” and “disturbing others through public communication networks” after he published a letter to the Minister of Defence on his blog Warakat Tounsia in April 2013. In the letter, he complained about the actions of the director of the military hospital in Gabes.

Ghanmi questioned what he claimed was the hospital’s refusal to receive a patient, his sister-in-law, despite her having an appointment. He also called for investigations into the hospital director for his treatment of patients.

The hospital director filed a complaint against Ghanmi at the Sfax Military Court of First Instance. Ghanmi now faces up to three years in prison and a fine.

“The trial of Hakim Ghanmi is a new blow to freedom of expression in Tunisia,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Putting him on trial at all violates his basic right to freedom of expression, but having to face a military court for posting on a blog is nothing short of shocking and violates Tunisia’s international human rights obligations. Civilians should not be tried in military courts.”

“Hakim Ghanmi should be allowed to peacefully voice his criticism of the authorities and public institutions without having to fear harassment and retribution. The right to criticize authorities and demand accountability is what Tunisians have fought and obtained so painfully”.

“It is truly baffling that people are still prosecuted in Tunisia simply because some officials cannot bear criticism.”

Since the uprising that led to the toppling of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the authorities have continued to harass journalists, artists, bloggers and critics under articles in Tunisian legislation which criminalize defamation and expression deemed to threaten public order, public morals or sacred values.

Hakim Ghanmi is being charged under Article 91 of Code of Military Justice and Article 128 of the Penal Code, both of which were also recently used to hand down a four month suspended sentence against Ayoub Massoudi, a former presidential adviser who criticized the military.

Ghanmi was also charged under Article 86 of the Telecommunication Code which was also used against blogger Jabeur Mejri who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in March 2012 for online posts deemed offensive to Islam and the prophet Mohamed.

“Instead of countering peaceful criticism and opinions with criminal charges and prison, the Tunisian authorities must immediately repeal laws which unduly restrict freedom of opinion and expression,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.