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Saturday, 2 February, 2002, 20:14 GMT
Fugitive opposition leader held in Tunis
Map of Tunisia
A Tunisian opposition leader, Hamma Hammami, who emerged from years in hiding on Saturday has been arrested in a courtroom in Tunis.

We will continue the struggle from the darkest corners of our cells

Hamma Hammami
Mr Hammami and two colleagues came out of hiding to appeal against lengthy jail sentences imposed in their absence for belonging to an illegal organisation.

Supporters had said they feared he would be rearrested.

Human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad accuse the government of widespread abuses, including the torture and harassment of dissidents.

Dragged away

Mr Hammami and his colleagues, all members of the illegal Communist Workers Party of Tunisia had decided to surrender to the court so they could appeal against nine-year prison sentences handed down in 1999 after what they said was an unfair trial.

A crowd of supporters and international observers, including members of the European Parliament, greeted them as they arrived at the court.

Hamma Hammami
Picture of Hamma Hammami, courtesy of Amnesty International
But eyewitnesses said Tunisian policemen then poured into the courtroom and asked the assembled lawyers and observers to move to one side.

The three men were taken away by security men and only brought back - in handcuffs and with their shirts torn - after their lawyers had left.

They were dragged away from the courtroom again after they shouted that they had been beaten, and one of them tried to show his scars.

It was later reported that the court had confirmed the prison sentence against Mr Hammami, who is 49 years old, and ordered him jailed immediately.

Speaking before his court appearance, Mr Hammami told French radio that he and his colleagues were not extremists or outlaws, but had "refused to submit to dictatorship... and repressive laws".

He said that even if imprisoned "we will continue the struggle from the darkest corners of our cells".

The three had been in hiding for four years, evading capture by changing safe houses and moving frequently.

'Repressing dissidents'

Human rights groups accuse the Tunisian authorities of widespread violations and of using the courts to silence political opponents.

Last week five international human rights organisations issued a joint appeal for European pressure on the Tunisian Government.

They said the Tunisian authorities were using the fight against terrorism to justify widespread repression of dissidents from across the political spectrum.

They also warned that Mr Hammami and his colleagues were in danger of torture in detention because of their decision to reappear.

Amnesty International press officer George Ngwa told BBC News Online on Saturday that his organisation wanted to see Mr Hammami have a retrial that is free and fair, and "that meets international standards".

See also:

02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Tunisia leader gears up for fourth term
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
Tunisia condemned for rights record
28 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Tunisia
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