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Swiss foreign minister to raise issue of human rights during Tunisia visit

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, is in Tunisia for a visit which threatens to be overshadowed by human rights issues. Deiss said he would address the issues in general, but would not raise specific cases.

Switzerland had wanted the visit to focus on trade and economic questions, as well as the Middle East peace process, but human rights has moved to the forefront as 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.

Ben Brick 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.

The Swiss foreign minister is expected to underline Swiss concern about press freedom during his meeting with his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Ben Yahia, today. However, Switzerland has made it clear it will not directly raise the Ben Brick affair, which it regards as an internal Tunisian matter.

Ben Brick's wife, Azza Zarrad, told Swissinfo that she was not too concerned by the Swiss decision not to raise 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.

After his talks with Ben Yahia, Deiss will also meet 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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