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OPINION

A Plight in Tunisia

By NASSER WEDDADY and JESSE SAGE
August 23, 2007

Franz Kafka could hardly have devised a more absurd fate for one of his protagonists: In early 2005, Tunisian lawyer Mohammed Abbou penned an article for an online journal decrying the state of his country's prisons. He was arrested that March, and the next month was sentenced to four years in jail for "defaming" the state. Tunisian officials evidently wanted to ensure he got a first-hand view of the very problem he sought to ameliorate.

[A Plight in Tunisia]

Last month, thanks to international pressure on Tunis, Mr. Abbou was released early. His ordeal is emblematic of both the pervasive civil-rights repression in the Middle East and the new means that advocates of liberty have for fighting it.

At the start, l'Affaire Abbou sparked an international human-rights solidarity campaign. Activists in Tunisia, Egypt, France, Yemen, the U.S. and beyond held rallies and demonstrations. Hundreds of blogs featured the lawyer's face on a campaign icon banner. Online petitions to Tunisian President Zine El-Abdin Ben Ali -- in office since a 1987 coup -- demanded Mr. Abbou's release.

To many observers, the campaign seemed a lost cause. President Ben Ali had locked up hundreds of political dissidents. Moreover, Mr. Abbou's arrest came as the cause of Mideast democracy seemed to have lost momentum. Reform movements that once lit up the streets in Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt had stalled, and the region's dictators were becoming re-emboldened as Iraq degenerated.

Yet Mr. Abbou refused to resign himself to four years behind bars over a simple op-ed. And so in October 2005 he launched a grueling protest in prison, sewing his own mouth shut to vivify the regime's muzzling of free speech. News of Abbou's bold act spread like wildfire over the Internet, infusing fresh energy into the solidarity campaign.

In France, the departure of President Jacques Chirac, a longtime Ben Ali booster, this spring created an opening. Responding to public pressure, President Nicolas Sarkozy raised Mr. Abbou's plight during a state visit with Mr. Ben Ali on July 10. Suddenly, on July 24, midway through his jail term, Mr. Abbou was released from prison and dumped outside his home. The popular solidarity campaign had borne fruit.

The day after his release, Mr. Abbou spoke to us by telephone from his home, which remained surrounded by Tunisian police. He sounded defiant and unbroken.

"If the regime thinks they can silence me and stop my work, they are mistaken," he said. "I do not regret what I wrote about the terrible situation in Tunisian prisons. My time inside as a prisoner only confirmed my outside impression as a lawyer. I am only more determined to promote the rule of law instead of the rule of the dictator."

Mr. Abbou credited his release to the fact that Tunisian officials underestimated the new power of Web-based solidarity campaigns: "The Tunisian regime thinks it is still the 1970s, when activists could be thrown in jail and the world would stay silent." Mr. Abbou's release illustrates how dedicated campaigners can leverage global communications to pressure international leaders to assist civil-rights reformers under fire.

His freedom is not absolute: Mr. Abbou must abide by strict guidelines set by the Tunisian justice minister, and he could be rearrested at a moment's notice. In dictatorships like Tunisia, civil liberties are granted only to citizens who submit.

Still, Mr. Abbou's homecoming signals that all hope for reform is not lost, and that the Middle East's clique of dictators remains vulnerable to outside pressure. This is good news for hundreds of political prisoners languishing in jails across the region.

In the meantime, Mr. Abbou faces a new technology challenge himself now that he is free. He reveals the daunting task before him: "I haven't checked my email in two years!"

Messrs. Sage and Weddady direct the Hamsa civil-rights initiative of the American Islamic Congress.

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