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Human rights overshadows trade talks in Tunisia

The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has held talks with his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Ben Yahia, in Tunis, in a visit overshadowed by human rights issues.

Details of the meeting have yet to be released, but Deiss was expected to have touched on the human rights situation in the Maghreb state.

Switzerland had wanted the visit to focus on trade and economic questions, as well as the Middle East peace process. But media attention has highlighted the case of Taoufik Ben Brick, a journalist who has been on hunger strike to protest against restrictions on press freedom in Tunisia. It is not clear whether Deiss raised the case of Ben Brick.

The journalist has been refusing food since April 3, in an effort to highlight his treatment at the hands of the authorities. Last year, a Tunisian court confiscated his passport and ordered him to stop writing about human rights abuses in the country. He was also charged with libel after articles critical of the Tunisian government appeared in two Swiss newspapers, the Tribune de Genève and the Courrier de Genève.

Since then he has been under virtual house arrest, with police preventing foreign journalists from visiting him.

Ben Brick’s wife, Azza Zarrad, told swissinfo that she was not too concerned whether Deiss would bring up her husband’s case. She said it was more important that Deiss raised the broader issue of human rights, and said she was heartened by his pledge to do so.

Deiss appears concerned not to provoke his hosts, but has nevertheless highlighted Switzerland’s interest in the case by inviting Ben Brick’s lawyer and other Tunisian journalists to a dinner given at the Swiss embassy in Tunis on Monday.

Deiss has also been holding talks with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, as well as several ministers responsible for economic affairs. Switzerland is particularly keen to discuss a free trade agreement between Tunisia and the European Free Trade Association (comprising Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland).

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR