Jailing of Tunisia TV boss 'illegal'

So many people believe they have been wrongly imprisoned in Tunisia that hundreds are refusing food. But one man's detention has captured the public's imagination.

Tunisian demonstrators hold pictures of Sami Fehri, jailed boss of the Ettounsiya TV channel, during a protest calling for his release outside the presidencial palace in Carthage near Tunis last month.
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Tunisia's prisons are full of hunger strikers.

So many people believe they have been wrongly imprisoned that hundreds are refusing food, two of them died last month and a committee of health workers and parliamentarians has been created to address the problem.

But of all those being monitored in overcrowded jails, one has caught the public imagination. Sami Fehri, director of the popular and distinctly irreverent Ettounisiya television channel, began refusing all food and water in early December after more than three months under what he claims is illegal detention.

His case has roused those who fear the government, led by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, is trying to control Tunisia's rumbustious media, that the decisions of the courts are being overruled and people are being detained unfairly.

"Sami Fehri is under arbitrary and illegal detention," said his lawyer Sonia Dohmani

"Fehri is being held despite a decision by the highest court in Tunisia on November 28, 2012, to quash his indictment and detention order," warned a Human Rights Watch report last month.

Mr Fehri was one of many investigated for collusion with the regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after the leader was toppled in 2011. In June of that year, an investigation began into allegations that Mr Fehri embezzled public funds after his company, Cactus Productions, help to contribute to losses at the state television station.

Mr Fehri was charged as an accomplice to embezzlement, but the investigations continue and he was not detained until August 28, more than 13 months after the investigation began. Ms Dohmani, his lawyer, said she believed he was imprisoned because of a controversial show his network was airing.

"The situation changed when he started broadcasting on his channel a programme that made fun of politicians, especially Rachid Ghannouchi," she said. Shown during Ramadan, Puppets featured a model of Mr Ghannouchi, the Ennahda party leader, wearing a baseball cap backwards and boasting about closing cafés during the day and his closeness to the US and Qatar.

This did not go down well with his supporters, said Ms Dohmani. The last two episodes of the series were never broadcast and, shortly afterwards, a warrant was issued for Mr Fehri's arrest and he was imprisoned.

His lawyers challenged the warrant and, in November, the Supreme Court ruled that it should never have been issued and he should be released. But late that night the director of Mornaguia prison, where Mr Fehri is held, said he had received instructions from the public prosecutor, whose authority is the justice ministry, not to release the prisoner.

"I cannot explain why they didn't set him free," said Selma Mabrouk, a politician who is part of the ruling coalition but has been a vociferous critic of Ennahda's policies. "I think that the public prosecutor and the ministry of justice did not respect the laws. I think this is the first time that the decision of the Supreme Court has not been respected."

Mr Fehri began a "dry" hunger strike in December, refusing water as well as food, but was persuaded to start drinking sugar water intermittently during the month. Weakened, he was moved to a hospital in the city centre, but as hopes have dwindled for his release - arrest warrants have now been issued for several more television executives wanted on the same charges - he has ended the strike.

His high profile and popularity have made the case widely publicised, but Ms Mabrouk said she suspects his situation is not isolated. In rural areas where there has been intermittent violence and many arrests, such as Siliana in the poor interior of the country, she said, "there are many people who have been in jail for years without knowing why".

Reforming what most say was, under Ben Ali, a deeply flawed judiciary has proved difficult. Last year, more than 80 judges were fired after the justice ministry found them to be corrupt, without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves. Some lawyers and judges say that they fear that the new authorities are creating a system only more chaotic, not more legitimate, than the old one.

"I think the overall issue is … whether the judicial system still works accords to laws, to the hierarchy of judicial decisions or not," said Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch. "The highest court in the country issues a decision and the decision is ignored … we don't have a legal system which is stable any more."

The justice minister Nourreddine Bhiri insisted on his Facebook page that Mr Fehri is legitimately detained.

Marwan Maalouf of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting office in Tunis said that while the charges against Mr Fehri are likely to be legitimate, his arrest also reflects a worrying trend of a desire to control the media.

"No one is saying that the guy is clean," he said, but it seemed that authorities had moved faster on this case, perhaps because of the tone of his television channel. "In general, you can tell that the government is afraid of the media and is trying to control the media."