Alert statement ahead of trial of staff member Mehdi Barhoumi in Tunisia tomorrow

International Alert’s Mehdi Barhoumi will attend the Cantonal Court of Tunis tomorrow [11 November], accused of “insulting police” under the controversial ‘article 125’ legislation widely used this year to silence acts of peaceful protest or dissent. Mehdi Barhoumi rejects the charges levelled against him and has pledged to continue promoting the economic and social rights of marginalised people in Tunisia.

Mehdi Barhoumi and two friends, Monther Saoudi, a member of the Citizen Mapping Association, and Sami Hmaied, an independent activist, were arrested on 6 March 2021, after a private conversation between friends on an apartment terrace was overheard. All three individuals deny the charges of insulting the police and claim they were exercising their right to freedom of expression.

While at the police station, the three defendants were questioned without receiving access to legal representation, before being ordered to sign the minutes without being able to read them, which they refused to do. No notification of their right to medical expertise was shared and when transferred to court the next morning, again they were questioned without lawyers by the prosecutor.

Barhoumi and the two activists could serve up to twelve months in prison if found guilty of breaching the legislation that outlaws criticism of law enforcement officers.

Research published by International Alert in 2020 found that at the time, almost one in five (17 percent) of 18 to 34-year-olds in neighbourhoods of greater Tunis defined as working class had been arrested and / or imprisoned. Hundreds of protesters and activists from social movements have been arrested since, with Amnesty International documenting an increasing number of criminal prosecutions on overly broad Penal Code charges that unduly limit free expression, usually at the instigation of security or state officials, in response to criticism.

Olfa Lamloum, International Alert’s Tunisia Country Director, said: “International Alert asks for the immediate closing of these affairs and the release of Mehdi Barhoumi and the two activists. International Alert reminds those watching these events that this is not an isolated case and comes in the context of intimidation of activists and human rights defenders and the criminalisation of the social movement in Tunisia.”

Lawyer Hammadi Henchiri said: ”In 2021 we witnessed a lot of arrests of protestors. Most of the cases include the charge of ‘article 125’, which is a vague article where the police are the judge. Police do not need this article to be protected.”

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