On 6 January 2011, at 6 o’clock in the morning, Sofiane Belhaj, a blogger and human rights defender, was arrested at his home. “I was not sleeping. I had just published some documents on the Internet,” he says, recounting the day. “Some friends had warned me that the police was looking for information about my pseudonym. I had a plan to escape from the back of the house.” But, things took a different turn. “All of a sudden, when the police came, I decided to give myself up to them. I had done nothing wrong; I was fighting for people’s rights, for the police’s rights as well, for their children’s rights.”
Under the pseudonym of Hamadi Kaloutcha, Belhaj had been campaigning against former President Ben Ali’s regime since 2007. “I have a dream: une Tunisie démocratique!” was one of the Facebook pages he launched.
“Social networks have given people access to information,” he says. “Facebook pages ‘told’ people not to fear.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization defending freedom of expression, online censorship stepped up in early January 2011, as the regime realised the importance of Facebook. That led to the arrest of Belhaj and three other bloggers on 6 January. They were released a few days later.
“When I was in the car with the police, heading to the Ministry of Interior,” he says “images of people tortured surfaced in my memory together with thoughts of my family. When we arrived, I felt like I had been anesthetized. I could not feel my legs any longer.”
The demonstrations of 14 January, which prompted then President Ben Ali to step down, were coordinated by a “simple Facebook page created the night before,” says Belhaj.
Born from a Belgian mother and Tunisian father, Belhaj started his activism in 2007 following his encounter with another human rights defender, Radhia Nasrawi, a lawyer and one of Tunisia’s most courageous human rights and women activists. “After I met her, I decided to follow her steps,” he recounts.
Belhaj has always been very active on social networks. Thanks to social media, “we find ourselves in our room where there is a little window overlooking democracy”, he says.
According to Reporters Without Borders, since former President Ben Ali was ousted, no sites are now blocked and bloggers and Internet-users are no longer being hounded.
7 December 2011
Belhaj, together with other human rights activists, attended a briefing session on human rights and the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.
This year, Human Rights Day celebrates the work of human rights defenders and focuses on their efforts to galvanize and inspire support and inspire support for change via social media. The UN Human Rights Office has launched a global social media campaign that will encourage people to commit to taking action for change by becoming human rights defenders.
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