Early Test for the New Constitution
(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should mark the celebration of the country’s new constitution on February 7, 2014, by immediately quashing the sentences of anyone convicted under laws that violate human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. One of these is Jaber Mejri, a blogger imprisoned since 2012 for publishing caricatures deemed insulting to Islam. Many foreign heads of state and officials, including the President François Hollande of France, will attend the ceremony.
On March 28, 2012, the First Instance Criminal Court of Mahdia sentenced Mejri and another blogger, Ghazi Beji, to seven-and-half years in prison for harming “public order or good morals” and “insulting others through public communication networks.” Beji fled and became the first Tunisian to gain political asylum in France since the 2011 revolution. Mejri is in Mahdia prison. The courts of appeal and cassation confirmed the lower court ruling. President Moncef Marzouki has the authority to pardon Mejri and should, Human Rights Watch said.
“Tunisia’s new constitution has bold protections for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mejri’s sentence violates his freedom of speech, and the government should celebrate the new day in Tunisia by freeing him.”
Mejri wrote satirically about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and reprinted crude caricatures of the prophet from an essay by Beji.
The new constitution has a provision that makes the state “the protector of religion” and requires it to prohibit “offenses to the sacred.” However, Tunisia should not negate the clear right in article 31 to “freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication.” Article 49 states that authorities may restrict public freedoms only if those restrictions are allowed by law and are “necessary to a civil and democratic state and with the aim of protecting the rights of others, or based on the requirements of public order, national defense, public health or public morals, and provided there is proportionality between these restrictions and the objective sought.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee considers it a violation of the right to freedom of expression, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, when countries impose “prohibitions of demonstrations of lack of respect for a religion or other system of belief, including blasphemy laws.”
Marzouki, speaking during a conference organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September 2013, appeared to imply Mejri’s imprisonment was for his own safety because of a violent response to the blogs by Islamic extremists and that he would free Merji when the situation cooled down. “Now be sure that I’m just waiting... for the political good moment,” Marzouki said.
Tunisia’s interim governing authorities made important strides toward the consolidation of human rights since the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, through a constitutional drafting process that culminated in the adoption of the constitution on January 26. They have repealed repressive laws on associations, political parties, and the press. However, they have yet to modify the penal code provisions that provide prison terms for defamation and such vaguely worded offenses as harming “public morals” and “public order.” and have continued to apply these provisions to prosecute speech considered objectionable. Courts have applied these provisions to convict people who spoke out on religious or politically issues peacefully.
“In congratulating Tunisians on their constitution, leaders of other countries at the ceremony should urge authorities to release people such as Mejri, whose conviction seems to contradict the rights enshrined in the new constitution,” Goldstein said.