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06TUNIS501 2006-03-06 15:34:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tunis
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1. (C) SUMMARY: The February 25 court appearance of the
Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), which resulted in an
administrative postponement, provided rare insight into the
extent to which GOT security forces can prevent civil society
from operating. While foreign diplomats were allowed entry
after some delay, senior LTDH officials were prevented from
approaching the gates of the courthouse. The significant
police presence - both uniformed and plain clothed - was
clearly focusing its attention on particular individuals,
while allowing other Tunisians to pass unhindered. END

2. (C) The LTDH, the largest independent human rights
organization in Tunisia and the oldest in the Arab world, has
had a tense relationship with the GOT for several years (Ref
B & C), but in 2005, 22 allegedly pro-government members
filed a legal case against the LTDH Executive Council to
protest chapter reorganization directed by LTDH President
Mokhtar Trifi. In September 2005, the Court of First
Instance blocked the convening of the LTDH National Congress.
The February 25 appearance was a continuation of this case,
which now includes only two plaintiffs, as twenty others
withdrew their complaint in November.

3. (C) When Poloff and PolFSN arrived at the courthouse to
attend the hearing, almost thirty uniformed and plain-clothes
security forces were present around the courthouse. Near the
entrance, one plainclothes man asked PolFSN, "Who are you?"
When he replied, "From the American Embassy," the man
pointedly asked PolFSN if he was American. Poloff said they
were together, which was enough to allow passage inside the

4. (C) There, another plainclothes man approached and asked
for identification cards. Poloff presented a diplomatic
identity card, while PolFSN, afraid of GOT reprisal,
presented only his embassy ID. One plainclothes man copied
down the ID cards' details, while another called for
permission for our entry. Two others questioned PolFSN, "Who
are you? Why don't you have your ID card? What did you come
for?" PolFSN claimed to be an embassy translator, who would
explain Arabic court proceedings. When the EU
representative, who was also awaiting permission to enter,
volunteered that a lawyer inside could translate so PolFSN
could depart, the men responded, "No, better for you to
provide neutral translation than those people inside."

5. (C) After waiting ten minutes in the courtyard, permission
was granted for entry. Finnish and British diplomats also
entered without incident shortly thereafter. Upon entry to
the courthouse, Ayashi Hammami, a lawyer, LTDH member, human
rights activist and former 18 October hunger striker (Ref A
and previous), approached the group to explain the senior
LTDH officials were in a coffee shop across the street,
afraid to attempt entry because of the police presence.
Hammami explained the officials hoped that if the foreign
diplomats joined them, they might be able to enter.

6. (C) The diplomats proceeded across the street, where they
met several LTDH officials, including President Mokhtar Trifi
and Vice President Souhair Belhassen. After initial
greetings and LTDH expressions of consternation about the
heavy police presence, the group attempted to cross the
street and approach the courthouse. It was clear that the
plainclothes police had identified the LTDH members that
would not be allowed to proceed. Security officers
approached to block the advance of the LTDH members, but none
physically or verbally abused them. One man was responsible
for announcing that only the lawyer representing the LTDH (in
this case President Trifi) would be allowed to enter.

7. (C) At this point, Trifi began shouting at the security
officials, "How can you let foreigners in while blocking us -
Tunisian citizens?! Shame!" and "The documents (notifying the
LTDH of the court date and requesting their appearance)
clearly address the (LTDH) Executive Council!" (NOTE: Ms.
Belhassen and other Executive Council members are defendants
in the case, although not mentioned specifically by name in
court documents. END NOTE.) The plainclothes officials
refused to respond to Trifi, instead focusing their attention
on encouraging the diplomats to enter the courthouse. The

blocked LTDH members returned to the coffee house across the
street while Trifi continued to demand they be allowed entry,
to no avail.

8. (C) Eventually, Trifi and the attending diplomats entered
the courthouse. The courtroom was full of many lawyers and
other Tunisians involved in the day's cases. Given the
efforts to prevent the entry of LTDH officials, it was
surprising to see so many Tunisians had no difficulty
entering. In fact, while diplomats and LTDH officials were
held outside the courthouse, hundreds of Tunisians entered
without question or delay.

9. (C) After wrapping upapproximately twenty other civil
cases on the day's docket - involving everything from
inheritance to commercial disputes - the judge called the
LTDH case. The defendants asked for a delay in order to
attempt to resolve the matter, while Trifi called on the
judge to grant access to all Executive Council members. The
judge, polite and clearly prepared, listened carefully before
dismissing the request outright. Civil law, explained the
judge, allows defendants to be represented in absentia by a
single lawyer. Thus, there was no violation of defendants'
rights, said the judge, and the case was rescheduled for May


10. (C) COMMENT: While post often receives complaints from
Tunisian civil society about the way Tunisian security forces
- uniformed and plainclothes - restrict their freedom of
movement and association, it was instructive to witness these
oppressive techniques firsthand. While no violence or force
was used, it was clear that under no circumstances were
particular individuals going to enter the courthouse. The
resignation on the faces of the LTDH members was another sign
of how independent civil society feels suffocated by the
extent of the mechanisms to control it. END COMMENT.