A court in Tunisia has handed down sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment against 33 workers and trade union activists after an unfair trial. Trade union leader Adnan Hajji and 37 others were accused of leading unrest in the phosphate-rich Gafsa region of south-east Tunisia earlier this year.
Amnesty International has condemned the prison sentences as a "travesty of justice" and called on the Tunisian authorities to release all those arrested and tried for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Others should be retried in fair proceedings in line with Tunisia’s international obligations.
Four of the accused were not in custody and were tried in absentia. Of the 38, seven received 10 years’ imprisonment. These include Adnan Hajji, Secretary General of local office of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) in Redeyef and spokesperson for the Movement of Social Protest in Gafsa.
The rest received prisons sentences ranging from two to six years, including at least 8 suspended sentences. Journalist Fahem Boukadous and France-based human rights activist Mouheiddine Cherbib received, respectively, six and two years prison sentences in their absence. Five other defendants were acquitted and are yet to be released.
Charges included “forming a criminal group with the aim of destroying public and private property” and “armed rebellion and assault on officials during the exercise of their duties”. They were among the hundreds arrested after a wave of protests against unemployment and high living costs that wracked the phosphate-rich Gafsa region in south-east Tunisia in the first half of this year.
“The verdict and sentences have been a subversion of justice and they should not be allowed to stand,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International. “The Tunisian authorities must immediately stop criminalizing social protest. Instead of trying peaceful protesters and trade unionists, the authorities should investigate the allegations of torture previously raised by the defendants.”
The verdict was pronounced on Thursday 11 December after the trial was suspended for several hours. The sentenced were handed down without the defence lawyers being able to present the case and with no interrogations of the defendants being carried out in court.
The demands of the lawyers that their clients be medically examined for traces of possible torture, and to call and cross-examine witnesses, were rejected by the court.
The verdict came amid reports of a heavy security presence. Security forces were deployed along the roads leading to the court as well as in main access roads to the city of Gafsa. The roads leading to the court were said to have been barred by the security forces who prevented a number of human rights activists from reaching the court.
“The trial raises yet again questions as to the independence of the judiciary in Tunisia and shows the Tunisian authorities’ determination to quell any independent voices inside the country,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The Gafsa region was wracked by a wave of popular protests in the first half of this year. They began in the town of Redeyef after the region’s major employer, the Gafsa Phosphate Company, announced the results of a recruitment competition.
The results were denounced as fraudulent by those who were unsuccessful and others, including the UGTT. The protests developed into a more general protest about high unemployment and rising living costs and spread to other towns as the authorities deployed large numbers of police and other security forces into the region.
Hundreds of protestors were arrested and more than 140 have been charged with offences, some of whom have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms.