Shaikh Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia’s An-Nahda Islamic movement, led a five-day hunger-strike by 20 protestors outside the Tunisian embassy in London fron October 20-24. The protest was in support of Islamic activists imprisoned in Tunisian jails who went on hunger strike on October 10 to protest against their conditions. Another five-day hunger strike took place in Paris, and there were also demonstrations outside the Tunisian embassies in Sweden, German, Switzerland and other European countries.
The hunger strikes began in the prison in Sfax - Tunisia’s second largest city - - and Lahwarib on October 10. Over 2,000 Islamic activists are held in Tunisian prisons, in conditions which are described by international agencies as appalling. Tens of An-Nahda members are reported to have died in recent years, of torture, food deprivation and diseases caused by unhygeinic and crowded conditions. Hundred more are suffering from various illnesses, some of them serious, without access to proper medical attention.
Senior members of An-Nahda, who are sick in prison, include Habib Ellouz and Sadouk Chourou, both former presidents of the party, and Ali Laarayedh, formerly a party spokesman. Some of the movement’s senior figures have been held in total solitary confinement for over 10 years. Shaikh Ghannouchi himself was held in prison in Tunisia until being released in the general amnesty that followed general Zine al-Abedin ben Ali’s coup in November 1987.
While the protests among Tunisian exiles in Europe, and their supporters, were intended to draw attention to the protests inside Tunisia, and the hunger-strikes were ended after a few days (although the campaign continues), the protesters in prison in Tunisia were continuing their hunger-strike as we went to press, despite their obvious hardships.
The strikers in London, led by Shaikh Al-Ghannouchi, said that they were calling on the Tunisian authorities to release all political prisoners, particularly those suffering from serious illnesses; to end the practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for long periods; to declare a general amnesty, compensating prisoners for the torture and other abuses they have suffered in jail; and to “purify [Tunisia’s] political, cultural and media environment of all forms of pressure, imposition and exclusion in order to create an atmosphere respecting public and personal liberties in the manner aspired to by, and worthy of, the Tunisian people’s level of maturity”.
The An-Nahda party was established as the Islamic Tendency Movement (IMT) in the 1960s, as a peaceful Islamic movement dedicated to creating an Islamic society in Tunisia. It is has been illegal ever since, despite widespread support in the country, and has regularly been subjected to brutal crackdowns.
When Zine al-Abdin ben Ali came to power, he promised to legalise the party provided it changed its name and pledged to work within Tunisia’s political system. This was when the party’s name was changed to An-Nahda (the Re-birth), and the party also agreed to ben Ali’s other conditions. However, instead of being legalised, it was subjected to another vicious crackdown, culminating in mass military trials in 1992, and many of those now in prison have been there ever since.
Most were accused of “membership of an unlicensed organization”, of attending political meetings or of possessing or distributing An-Nahda literature. They have since been joined by sympathisers accused of “unauthorised collection of money” for trying to help the families of those in jail.
The protests in Europe are particularly brave as they involve students and others who are liable to face prosecution when they return to Tunisia. The Tunisian authorities also have a record of targeting the wives, parents and siblings of activists who are in prison or overseas. Lawyers and others helping them are also persecuted. Meanwhile, the regime continues to be supported by the west.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999