March 31, 2006

US concerned about harassment of Tunisia activist

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expressed concern
on Friday about the harassment of Tunisian activist Neila
Charchour Hachicha and urged the Tunis government to allow its
citizens to express opinions freely.

Hachicha's pro-democracy views received wide attention
after she spoke out at a seminar for Arab reformers at the
conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in
Washington. AEI organizers consider her a test case of the U.S.
commitment to democracy, one of President George W. Bush's
central foreign policy goals.

"The United States is concerned about the harassment of
political activist Neila Chachour Hachicha and her family
following her recent remarks on the need for press freedom and
democratic reform in Tunisia," said Tom Casey, a State
Department spokesman.

The department raised these concerns with the Tunisian
government "and we call on it to grant her and all citizens the
right to express their views peacefully and without
interference," he added.

Writing in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper on Friday,
Hachicha said for four years she espoused moderate political
views using a personal blog and her party's Web site and the
government largely left her alone.

But after she attended the AEI seminar and addressed a
wider public audience, including on al-Jazeera satellite
television network, "it did not take long for the repressive
machinery to kick into action," she said.

"The problem is that most Tunisians do not want to admit
that they are terrorized," she added.

Earlier in the week, AEI Middle East expert Michael Rubin
said that Hachicha had been interrogated for four hours and her
husband had been "sentenced to 10 months in prison on
accusations that appear to have no legal basis."

"In the last couple weeks, Neila's car has been
confiscated, her Internet connection severed, and her daughter
threatened. Police have been stationed outside Neila's house
and have written down the license plate numbers of anyone who
has visited her," he said in remarks e-mailed to a reporter.

A spokesman for the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, Taoufik
Chebbi, insisted his government respected the rule of law and
"has nothing to do ... with these allegations."

As for the case against Hachicha's husband, Chebbi told
Reuters he was convicted of real estate fraud but would remain
free while appealing the verdict.