Worrying Prosecutions Over Free Speech
(Tunis) – President François Hollande of France should raise key human rights concerns in his meetings with Tunisian officials on July 4 and 5, 2013. It is the first trip of a French president to Tunisia since Nicolas Sarkozy visited President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2008, three years before his ouster.
Among the paramount concerns are prosecutions – and in some cases imprisonment – for nonviolent speech offenses. While freedom of expression has significantly increased in Tunisia since the overthrow of Ben Ali, the authorities are using repressive laws to prosecute speech they consider objectionable, Human Rights Watch said.
“No one should be prosecuted for peacefully voicing political, religious, or cultural dissent in Tunisia’s new era,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Hollande should use France’s leverage as a key trading partner and ally to press Tunisia to protect freedom of expression.”
Since Ben Ali’s departure, Tunisian interim governing authorities have made important strides toward democracy and the consolidation of human rights through an inclusive and ongoing constitutional drafting process. They have repealed repressive laws on associations, political parties, and the press.
However, no changes have yet been made in penal code provisions that provide prison terms for defamation and such vaguely worded offenses as harming “public morals” and “public order.” People who raise religious and political issues have been convicted under these provisions.
Two Tunisians are behind bars for nonviolent speech offenses, another fled Tunisia to escape a prison sentence and received asylum in France, and at least five more could face prison terms if convicted in trials that are underway. Others have been fined or given other penalties.
On June 13, a court in Tunis sentenced Alaa Eddine Yaakoubi, better known as Oueld El 15 (the 15-year-old boy), to two years in prison for “insulting the police” and defamation of public officials under articles 125, 128, and 226 of the penal code for a video clip song “Cops Are Dogs.”
On January 4, the military court of appeals increased the sentence handed down by the first instance military court of Tunis against Ayoub Massoudi, former adviser to interim president Moncef Marzouki, for impugning the reputation of the army under article 91 of the Code of Military Justice, and defaming a civil servant. He had accused the army chief of staff and the defense minister of dereliction of duty for failing to inform the president in a timely manner of the plan to extradite the former Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmoudi, to Libya. The sentence was increased from four months to a suspended prison term of one year, and he was stripped of some of his civic rights.
On May 29, the military court of Sfax, in southeastern Tunisia, put Hakim Ghanmi on trial on charges of “undermining the reputation of the army,” “defamation of a public official,” and “disturbing others through public communication networks” because of a letter to the defense minister he published on his blog, Warakat Tounsia, in April. In the letter, he asked the defense minister to open an investigation against the director of the military hospital in Gabes over mistreating patients. Ghanmi faces up to three years in prison if convicted.
In March, authorities brought criminal defamation charges against Raja Ben Slama, a university professor who had criticized the general rapporteur of the National Constituent Assembly, and against Olfa Riahi, a blogger who posted information about alleged misuse of public funds by Rafik Abdessalem before he stepped down as foreign minister in March. Judicial proceedings against them are continuing. They face up to two years in prison if convicted.
In September 2012, a public prosecutor brought charges against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and good morals. Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Salem, whose works were exhibited in a show in La Marsa, in the northern suburbs of Tunis, in June 2012, could be sentenced to up to five years in prison if convicted. The cases are before an investigative judge of the first instance court of Tunis.
On March 28, 2012, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Mahdia sentenced two bloggers to prison terms of seven-and-a-half years, confirmed on appeal, for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. One, Ghazi Beji, fled the country and became the first Tunisian to gain political asylum in France since the 2011 revolution. The other, Jaber Mejri, is serving his sentence in Mahdia prison.
On May 3, 2012, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Tunis fined Nabil Karoui, the owner of the television station Nessma TV, 2,300 dinars (US$1,490) under article 121(3) of the penal code for distributing or displaying information “that can harm public order or good morals” for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis,” denounced as blasphemous by some Islamists.
When challenged about this series of trials for speech offenses, some Tunisian officials have said the courts are independently reaching these verdicts and it is not the role of the executive branch to dictate the verdicts. But the prosecutor’s office, which is under the supervision of the Justice Ministry, makes decisions about filing charges.
“Hollande should stand with Tunisians who support the right of freedom of expression by questioning the imprisonment of Tunisians for their nonviolent speech and the repressive laws that make it possible,” Goldstein said.