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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Tunisia's dissidents battle cyber-police
Zouhair Yahyaoui
Yahyaoui got two years for 'publishing false news'

Despite the release of leading Tunisian dissident Hamma Hammami from prison this week, many others remain incarcerated.

Human rights group Amnesty International estimates that up to 1,000 political prisoners are currently in detention.

Internet journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui was jailed in June, for what human rights campaigners believe was making fun of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on his web-site, www.tunezine.com.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that the Tunisian Government censors the internet more tightly than any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China.

Personal details

"Tunisia has developed an elaborate system of control, using sophisticated cyber-police," says Virginie Locussol from RSF's North Africa and Middle East desk.

Tunisia's cyber-cops
Bar access to non-approved web-sites
Intercept e-mails
Control internet service providers (ISPs)
Monitor internet cafes
Send computer viruses to dissidents
Source: RSF
Mr Yahyaoui's fiancée, Sophie Elwarda, told BBC News Online:

"If you go to an internet cafe, you must be very careful not to leave any personal details on the computer."

Otherwise, she says that you might be arrested by the cyber-police if you have visited any dissenting websites.

Ms Elwarda said that both main ISPs were run by relatives of President Ben Ali.

When opening an e-mail account, people must supply copies of their identity card, according to RSF.

Cyber-joke

Cyber-dissident Mr Yahyaoui is being held in conditions resembling a concentration camp, his fiancée said.

"More than 80 men share a single room. Sometimes there isn't even enough space to sleep."

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
President Ben Ali has been in power since 1987

"They only have water for half an hour every day."

His family is only allowed to visit him once a week and any nutritious food they give him is taken away, Ms Elwarda said.

Mr Hammami reported similar conditions after his release on Wednesday.

The web journalist was arrested in 4 June and on 10 July was sentenced to 2 years in prison for "publishing false news".

Despite the tight cyber-censorship, the United Nations-run International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has decided to hold a major summit in Tunis in 2005.

The decision to hold the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia was condemned by RSF.

"If it wasn't so serious, anyone knowing a little about the situation in Tunisia with the internet and press freedom generally might be able to laugh about it," says RSF.

See also:

20 Jun 02 | Middle East
27 May 02 | Middle East
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
05 Jun 02 | Country profiles
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