TUNIS, (Reuters) – A Tunisian court on Saturday rejected an appeal by anti-government journalist Taoufik Ben Brik against his six-month prison sentence for assault, his lawyer Radhia Nasraoui told Reuters.
Ben Brik was found guilty in November last year of assaulting a woman motorist. His case has angered freedom of speech campaigners who say the charges were fabricated to silence his criticism of the Tunisian authorities.
The trial of Ben Brik, a vehement critic of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has put the North African country’s human rights record under intense scrutiny from Western governments and freedom of speech campaigners.
“The judge … has confirmed the six-month sentence on Ben Brik,” Nasraoui said after a court hearing on Saturday.
Tunisian officials have denied the case is political and said anyone convicted of assaulting a woman should expect to be punished and that no one is above the law.
Ben Brik’s wife and other members of his family said earlier this month they had started a hunger strike to press for his release on the grounds of his poor health. “I will take legal action against the Tunisian government at the United Nations court,” Ben Brik’s wife, Azza Zarad, told Reuters.
“We are disappointed because we believe that Ben Brik is innocent,” said Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
The case triggered a diplomatic spat when France’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said he was disappointed that Ben Brik had been arrested. Ben Ali responded by attacking what he called “foreign interference” in Tunisia’s internal affairs.
Tunisia is sensitive to criticism from European Union countries because it is to apply soon to the EU for advanced status, which could qualify it for preferential trade terms and enhance its international standing.
Tunisian officials said Ben Brik had knocked a woman to the floor, punched and kicked her, swore at her and deliberately damaged her car. Ben Brik’s lawyers alleged he was the victim of a police operation to entrap him.
Rights campaigners accuse Tunisia of using the police and courts to stifle criticism of the authorities, and of paying only lip service to democracy.
Ben Ali, who has been president of the North African country for 23 years, has said his government is committed to respecting democracy and human rights. He was re-elected to a fifth term last year with 89.62 percent of the vote. Many Tunisians credit him with overseeing stability and relative prosperity in Tunisia, which attracts millions of European tourists each year.