Never before in a Tunisian court has a prisoner been seized by the police while standing with his lawyers. As one astonished eyewitness said yesterday: "In Tunis that usually happens before or after the trial."
But in front of British, American, Swiss and Belgian diplomats, journalists and supporters, three Communist Party members who had just given themselves up after years of living underground in the country were dragged from the court by uniformed and plain-clothed officers.
Embassies and humanitarian groups were demanding an explanation from President Ben Ali, who has long insisted – against all the evidence to the contrary – that his country is a beacon of human rights and freedoms.
Hamma Hammami, Abdel-Jabar Madouri and Samir Taamallah all had nine-year sentences reconfirmed when two of them appeared in another courtroom, with Madouri receiving an extra two years on charges that have never been revealed to him or his lawyers.
When the police first burst into the court, the judge reportedly locked himself in his office while up to 50 lawyers, all of whom wanted to speak, refused to stand away from the defendants.
Anne-Charlotte Dommartin, a member of the International Support Committee, which has been campaigning for those Communists living underground, says that the initial court hearing was repeatedly delayed. "When the court was packed at around 1.45, police suddenly rushed in and shouted 'Step back, step back,' at the lawyers. The only person who can say that is the judge. Six policemen went to grab the three men, and one of their daughters, a little girl of two, was pushed to the floor and her father fell on top of her."
In a second hearing, dozens of plain-clothed police arrived when the defendants began shouting "independent justice".
At a third hearing, according to Ms Dommartin, Madouri failed to appear. There are fears he may have been beaten up by the police, who did not want witnesses to see his wounds.
Hammami, an author and journalist, has been repeatedly imprisoned over the past 29 years. "If he knows nothing about the beautiful tourist beaches of Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Mahdia, Gabès, Le Kef and Bizerta," his wife, Radhia, told me recently, "he knows almost all their prisons."
Hammami has frequently written about his treatment at the hands of the police and of the torture practised against him in Tunisian prisons. In one jail he says that the prison director attacks inmates with a truncheon.
"The police have confiscated all my past, the few pictures of my childhood, my high-school report cards, the poems I have written since I was 13, all the memories I had kept from my childhood in a tiny suitcase," he wrote recently. Hammami was a severe critic of America's "war on terrorism" launched after 11 September, stating that it was not "just" or "civilised" or "noble".Reuse content