Tunisian court hands journalist 6-month sentence

AP News
Posted: Nov 26, 2009 10:20 AM

A journalist known for his critical stance toward Tunisia's government was sentenced to six months in prison Thursday for what his lawyer called a trumped-up assault charge.

The French government expressed regret at the ruling against Taoufik Ben Brik, and attorney Mokhtar Trifi said he plans to appeal the "very severe" sentence. He called the proceedings "a political trial par excellence."

Ben Brik, 49, has written stories critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for French media including news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

He was detained last month shortly after Ben Ali's re-election to a fifth term. He was convicted of damaging a woman's car during an altercation in the street and engaging in physical violence that resulted in injuries. The government released no other details about the accusations.

During the trial last week, Ben Brik insisted he was the "victim of a trap laid by the security services."

In a separate incident that also took place shortly after the presidential elections, another Tunisian journalist, Slim Boukhdhir, was attacked by a group of men hours last month after he gave a critical interview to the BBC, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had urged the Tunisian government to release the journalist, who suffers from Cushing's Syndrome, an ailment caused by prolonged exposure of the body's tissues to high levels of the hormone cortisol.

"We regret this decision and underscore the importance we attach to press freedom in Tunisia and throughout the world," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero in an online news conference.

In a letter to his Tunisian counterpart, Kouchner had urged authorities to release Ben Brik so he could be hospitalized.

Reporters Without Borders also lashed out against the verdict, saying in a statement Thursday that it sends a "worrisome signal to Tunisian journalists."

"With this verdict, he (Ben Brik) is paying the price for his commitment and his freedom of tone," the statement quotes the Paris-based group's head, Jean-Francois Julliard, as saying.