SFAX — Plastic bags litter the fields that separate the highway from the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisian fishermen sail their boats in the Gulf of Gabes, between the cities of Sfax and Zarzis — and just 120 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Indeed, recently the fishermen's haul has begun to include migrants picked up from these shores, with 136 intercepted by the Italian government in one recent night.
That boat had almost reached the port of Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily, but the migrants were waiting in the dark to safely disembark and evade authorities. Their reasons became clear once they were processed at the local refugee hotspot, where all the migrants were identified as Tunisian nationals from the Sfax area. Italy and Tunisia have a repatriation agreement, and any Tunisian caught entering the country illegally is subject to deportation. Thirty of those 136 have already been given notice to leave the country within six days, but many of them are intent on continuing northward toward France.
Across the Mediterranean in Sfax, ferries lay idle waiting to board passengers for the short trip to the island of Kerkennah. Home to the founder of Tunisia's largest and foremost trade union, Kerkennah has seen protests against the high unemployment rate. Even fishermen are having difficulty making a living, and many locals yearn to flee to nearby Italy.
"Would you stay here doing nothing all day?" asks Neji, 23. "The Tunisian dinar is worthless, this country has no future. That's why we want to leave."
I still have the scars.
Migrants first board the ferry from Sfax to Kerkennah, where they pay traffickers to take them to Italy in small boats undetectable by radar. While the 1,500 Tunisians arrivals in Italy in 2017 are a far cry from the tens of thousands that arrived from Libya, their efforts to remain undetected make it difficult to give a definitive number. "We've registered a slight increase in departures from Tunisia compared to last year," says Raimondo De Cardona, the Italian Ambassador in Tunis.
According to Mounib Baccari, a Tunisian activist at Watch the Med, an NGO that combats migrant trafficking, the number of arrivals is continuously increasing and should be a source of concern for authorities. "Every day we hear reports of small boats blocked by the coast guard," he says. "Those who are leaving are young men who are poor or desperate, and many of them try the journey several times because they're convinced it's their only chance for a better future."
With 300,000 inhabitants, Sfax is the main city of southern Tunisia. Security roadblocks check cars and trucks traveling on the highway to the Libyan border, where seven Islamic State members were arrested last month. The area is becoming steadily more religiously conservative, as exemplified by the recent case of a female teacher who was assaulted by parents after reports that she shut her classroom's windows during the call to prayer.
We at least want to have their bodies back.
"The Arab Spring didn't change my life," says a young man waiting for the ferry. "I'm a mechanic when I can find work, but the most money I've made in a month is 100 euros."
The mothers of would-be migrants who've died seeking to cross the Mediterranean now protest in the city's streets. Yet more and more young Tunisians continue to leave for Italy — and often, it isn't their first attempt.
"I no longer want to cook my son's favorite dish, I can't stand his absence," says Souad Rawahi. "The government must give us an answer, we at least want to have their bodies back, but instead they beat us when we protest. I still have the scars."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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