There’s no freedom of expression here in Tunisia, it is dead … I am denied medicine to cure my illness and other rights. Seven years and six months is a long period to spend in a small, dark and gloomy place. Officers take pleasure in torturing me.
These are the words of Jabeur Mejri, an English teacher and blogger imprisoned for his writing and online posts.
I have written previously in these pages about various freedom of expression cases in Tunisia, including that of human rights lawyer Mohammed Abbou (LR, March 2006), who spent 28 months in prison for writing an online article denouncing torture, and Slim Boukhdir (LR, March 2008), a blogger and contributor to Al-Quds al-Arabi, who was imprisoned for articles deemed critical of the then president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his family. Mejri’s sentencing is a worrying indication that the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Tunisia has, so far, failed to bring improvements in human rights.
In January 2011, Tunisia’s popular uprising forced Ben Ali from office. He had come to power in 1987 after deposing Tunisia’s first president since independence, Habib Bourguiba, in a bloodless coup. Despite the speed with which Ben Ali’s regime fell, democratic reform has been painfully slow. Under the new Islamist government, there has been renewed unrest and, in recent months, protesters have returned to the streets. There has also been a worrying rise in the number of hardline and violent Islamist groups. Some Salafists, for example, insist on a strict enforcement of religious law and have perpetrated physical attacks on individuals and groups with impunity.
According to Human Rights Watch, Tunisia’s failure to establish an independent judiciary encourages human rights violations to persist. In fact, repressive laws from the time of Ben Ali’s dictatorship are being used by the present government to persecute dissidents and stifle the peaceful expression of opinions considered harmful to ‘values, morality, or the public order’.
Last year Nabil Karoui, the owner of a private Tunisian television station, was fined £1,000 for broadcasting the award-winning French-American animated film Persepolis, about the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The authorities prosecuted Karoui for ‘broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals’. Amnesty condemned the sentence, claiming that it was ‘a sign of the continuing erosion of free speech in Tunisia’ and that it demonstrated the government’s lack of will to implement freedom of the press and other media. Chillingly, hardline Salafists called for Karoui to be executed.
Mejri and his friend Ghazi Beji, a fellow blogger, both in their late twenties, are also prominent victims of the government’s intolerance of free speech. After they received lengthy prison terms for writings considered ‘offensive to Islam’, their cases have been taken up by international lobby groups. Mejri was arrested on 5 March 2012 for using social networks to publicise Beji’s satirical book The Illusion of Islam, which he had published online. This was critical of Islam and contained cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Some reports suggest that Mejri had also uploaded his own critical work, Dark Land, which was written in English. Mejri’s posts on Facebook apparently enraged members of the Salafist community, some of whom threatened to throw acid in his face. Beji believes that Mejri was initially informed by security forces that his detention was in order to protect him from a Salafist attack. Beji fled Tunisia after learning that his friend had been taken into police custody and he is currently seeking asylum in Europe.
On 9 March 2012, a court in Mahdia (eastern Tunisia) sentenced Mejri to seven and a half years in prison and fined him 1,200 Tunisian dinars (£480) for ‘disturbing the public order and violating social morals’ and ‘publishing articles which violate good morals’. Beji was sentenced in absentia to the same prison term and fine.
In poor health, Mejri has remained in prison since his arrest and has lost all his appeals. On 25 April 2013, the court of cassation upheld his sentence. His lawyer claims that Mejri was tortured during interrogation and that fellow inmates have attacked him on several occasions after discovering he had ‘insulted Islam’.
On 22 May at the Universal Periodic Review of Tunisia in Geneva, Samir Dilou, the minister for human rights and transitional justice, stated that ‘the Internet was a partner in the revolution so the government would not punish this partner’. The minister made this comment before the UN Human Rights Council. Lobby groups have since petitioned Dilou to stand by his words and protect free speech in Tunisia.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning the harsh prison sentence handed down to Jabeur Mejri solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to free expression; calling for his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a signatory; seeking assurances that he is not being tortured or ill-treated in detention, in accordance with Article 5 of the ICCPR; and urging the Tunisian authorities to allow him access to immediate medical attention.
Appeals should be addressed to:
President Moncef Marzouki
Fax: 00 216 71 744 721
Minister of Justice Nadhir Ben Ammou
Fax: 00 216 71 568 106
His Excellency Hatem Atallah
The Tunisian Embassy
29 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1QG
Fax: 020 7584 3205
Writing to the prison authorities can help promote better conditions for detainees, so readers might like to send copies of appeals to:
Directeur général des prisons
Rue 8003, Appartement –L–
Espace de Tunis Monplaisir
Fax: 00 216 71 904 472