Tunisian expatriates fight for their right of return

On Tuesday June 23, three Tunisian rights activists were attacked in Tunis on their way back from the founding conference of the International Organization of Tunisian Migrants in the Swiss capital, Geneva. Rights groups said the attack was meant to be a warning for an organization putting pressure on the Tunisian government to pardon political refugees in exile.
Tunis International Organization for Tunisian Migrants
Tunisian expatriots at the conference of the International Organization of Tunisian Migrants on June 21 and 22. © swissinfo.ch

TUNIS, June 28, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Tunisian lawyer Abdel Rauf al-Abadi was one of the three Tunisian rights activists attacked in the Carthage International Airport by members of the Tunisian police last Tuesday after returning from a rights conference in Geneva, Switzerland on June 21 and 22.

Eyewitnesses said publicly that the policemen kicked Al-Abadi and threw him to the ground, while more security agents simultaneously attacked another rights lawyer Radhia Al-Nasrawi.

And prior to the police assault, sources close to the two lawyers said that Al-Abadi and Al-Nasrawi had been subjected to a humiliating physical search by airport immigration agents.

Lawyer Abdul Wahhab al-Moatar – a third lawyer in the group - suffered similar mistreatment at the hands of Tunisian security agents at Sfax Airport.

The incident occurred after police officers had already dumped the contents of another lawyer's bag. Samir Dilo’s bag was emptied and he was arrested and detained for over an hour after refusing to be physically searched on his arrival.

The National Council for Freedoms in Tunisia denounced the police attacks and demanded an investigation to "uncover the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

The three Tunisian activists in question had been at the founding conference of the International Organization for Tunisian Migrants held on June 20 and 21 in Geneva, Switzerland.

More than 150 Tunisians dissident attended the conference, all exiled for their opposition political activities.

According to a statement, the attendees had been demanding, “The return of Tunisian expats, with a guarantee of residence and freedom of movement," with additional guarantees that they be allowed "religious and political freedoms.”

"And we demand the right to continue our peaceful struggle in the name of what we think is in the public’s best interest with all the legal tools granted to us by the constitution and the laws of the state,” the statement read.

Conference organizer Nour al-Khatroushi, said that the idea of the conference began “about a year ago when a decision was taken to activate the right to return in a systematic and organized way in order to retrieve our right to a safe and unanimous return.”

The founding member of the organization, Lutfi al-Hamami said, "The subject of Tunisian expats is not related to the present, but is rooted in the past with those dissidents deprived of their rights since the end of (late Tunisian President Al-Habib) Bourqiba’s reign. These expat dissidents represent different political, ideological and intellectual directions in Tunisia.”

He called on the Tunisian authorities to recognize the right to return for everyone without pre-conditions, and he demanded a legislative pardon recognizing the right of all migrants to return.

Media reports in Tunisia have suggested that there are some 700 Tunisian political refugees spread worldwide, most affiliated to with the Islamist Nahda Movement that accused the government of rights violations since 1992.

Most of the exiled also expressed their fear of being arrested the minute they returned to Tunisia.

Al-Hadi Brik, one of the founders of the International Organization for Tunisian Migrants, said that the Tunisians currently in exile are still “citizens who were convicted in absentia or were released from jail only to flee for fear of persecution or for their lives, dignity and pride due to old relations with others convicted or imprisoned by the state.”

Tunisian Justice Minister, Bechir Tekkari, addressed the concerns of the conference attendees in a recent press statement.

“Tunis was and is for all Tunisians wherever they are,” he said adding “The right to return is ensured by the Tunisian constitution, which cannot be compromised. To the emigrant Tunisians who consider themselves as the 'marginalized' and speak of the right to return, we say that Tunisia is for all without exception.”

Journalist Khaled al-Haddad, a source close to the government, also addressed the conference attendees.

In a statement to the press he said, “They should leave the past alone and look to the future.”

“I think we should talk about a new initiative called ‘the duty to return’ without hiding behind the veneer of activism for political purposes or using court decisions to politicize things or gain electoral favors. Tunisia is for all Tunisians as stated in the constitution, and as assured by the President.”

Expat Tunisian journalist Bassam Bounenni, who now lives in Qatar told MENASSAT, “The sole existence of this organization is a black point in the history of our country. But I hope it won’t simply be a movement that plays political games without making any real difference.”

“This matter has lasted long and should be permanently erased. How could a citizen be deprived of his right to return to his country especially when we all know the circumstances of his departure,” Bounenni said referring one of the more famous Tunisian expat dissidents,  Noureddine al-Qussafi, who left Tunisia 47 years ago after being accused of being involved in plotting the overthrow of former Tunisian president Bourqiba in 1962.