Tunisian journalist freed after 6 months in prison

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A prominent Tunisian journalist who had criticized his government was freed Tuesday after serving a six-month prison sentence.

Taoufik Ben Brik, who had written stories critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for French media, was convicted last year on assault charges that his lawyer and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders say were trumped up.

Ben Brik told France-Info radio shortly after his release that he was deprived of pen and paper or books while behind bars in what he described as a "prehistoric prison," where detention conditions were "worse than in the movies."

He said he was jailed for writing an article called "The Poet and the Dictator," and pledged he'd continue to write about Ben Ali.

"These six months didn't break my spine ... I'm going to take my revenge," he said on the phone from Tunisia, adding he hoped to fly to France soon if authorities let him.

The French Foreign Ministry welcomed his release.

Reporters Without Borders noted that, even as Ben Brik was being released, another Tunisian online journalist and rights activist was being jailed. It said Zouhaier Makhlouf was beaten up in custody after being arrested last week for tarnishing Tunisia's reputation.

Tunisian authorities have not commented on the case. A lawsuit against a third Tunisian journalist is also due to resume this week.

Tunisia is considered relatively progressive on issues such as women's rights, but is also known for having a strict government hand on the media and an overbearing police presence. Rights groups say the media crackdown hardened in October after Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89 percent of votes.