TUNIS New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Tunisian authorities on Wednesday of using police to prevent journalists attending the launch of a report critical of the government's rights record.
A former French colony on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia hosts millions of tourists each year and also attracts large sums in investment from EU countries.
Tunisia wants the European Union to grant it "advanced status," which could give it preferential trade terms, but diplomats say concerns in some EU capitals about its rights record risk complicating the application.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) employee said police had surrounded the lawyer's office where the group was trying to brief reporters about its new report, which accuses Tunisia of adopting repressive measures toward former prisoners.
"Plainclothes police physically prevented journalists and human rights activists from reaching the venue. Only one diplomat and three human rights activists were able to reach the event," Eric Goldstein told Reuters.
"Who is free to speak in Tunisia when the government tries to silence an international human rights organization?" Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.
A Tunisian official source told Reuters the authorities had cooperated with the rights group which he said was acting in a provocative way that showed a lack of respect for Tunisian laws.
Human Rights Watch said a hotel room that was originally booked to hold the news conference was flooded soon after HRW staff checked in and the hotel said it had no other rooms.
The Tunisian official, who did not want to be identified, rejected the group's allegations.
"The behavior of the organization's delegation to Tunisia is marked by provocative actions and demonstrates a lack of respect for the country's laws and sovereignty, although it has been received by officials and been allowed" to hold other meetings connected to its research, the official said.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has run the country for more than two decades and was re-elected to a fifth term in office last year with 89.62 percent of the vote. Many Tunisians credit him with overseeing stability and relative prosperity.
Tunisia's rights record came under international scrutiny last year when a court handed down a six-month jail term on journalist Taoufik Ben Brik. He said he was being punished for dissent, while prosecutors said he assaulted a woman.
The 42-page Human Rights Watch report, entitled "A Larger Prison," alleges that Tunisian authorities subject former prisoners to surveillance, threats to re-arrest any who speak out on human rights or politics, and restrictions on movement.
The Tunisian official told Reuters the report contains lies and fabrications which were designed to mislead the public about the human rights situation in Tunisia. He said former prisoners were treated in accordance with the law.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Jon Hemming)