Republic day in Tunisia, waiting for a pardon

Tunisia’s Mornaguia jail

Today, July 25, Tunisia celebrates its birth as a republic. On this day in 1957, Tunisia, having already announced its independence 15 months earlier, officially became a republican regime. While most Tunisians spend today as one would any holiday, relaxing with friends and family, some Tunisian families are waiting for word from the president on pardons for their imprisoned family members.

While both inside and outside of Tunisia the emphasis has usually been on political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, conditions of Tunisian prisons have not improved since the revolution, except for those who were pardoned in one of the general amnesties since January 14, 2011.

Nevertheless, Tunisia’s jails remain notoriously harsh. Conditions are spartan, with many prisoners sleeping 50 to a room. The lucky ones may get a “private” room, containing only 7 other men. And with draconian sentencing, Tunisians, convicted of what might be considered petty crimes in other countries, may languish for years in prison in Tunisia. Recall that only recently, two young men in Mahdia were sentenced to seven years in jail for blasphemy. While the “affaire Mahdia” has become somewhat of a cause celebre, many Tunisians guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs or petty vandalism can spend years in Tunisia’s jails.

On this, the 55th Republic Day in Tunisia, it is the families of these prisoners that are praying for a miracle. Praying that their sons or brothers, or fathers will receive a presidential pardon and a new lease on life. Today can act as a subtle reminder for those who thankfully do not have to experience the tragedy of having a family member in jail, that even those who have erred deserve respect and human dignity.

The deeply troubling arrests of the “Mahdia Affair”

A disturbing story from the coastal town of Mahdia in Tunisia has inflamed passions in the ongoing religious debates in Tunisia. The story involves two Tunisians sentenced to seven years of prison for posting offensive pictures on Facebook. First some details, from Reuters:

Two young Tunisians have been sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fueled allegations the country’s new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech….”They were sentenced … to seven years in prison for violation of morality, and disturbing public order,” said Chokri Nefti, a justice ministry spokesman….The sentence was handed down on March 28 but was not reported until Thursday, when bloggers started posting information about the case on the Internet.

The Tunisian bloggers who wrote about it include Olfa Riahi, who wrote about the story for the open source Tunisian website Nawaat. She provides an interesting and thorough account of the proceedings, including an extended interview with the prosecuting lawyer.

The government avoided taking a hard stand on the issue. Tunisia Live reported:

When asked about the judge’s decision to impose a maximum sentence, Chokri Nafti, press attaché of the Ministry of Justice asserted that the judge “is independent and free to choose the minimal or the maximal sentence.” He argued that “as long the judge respects the law and does not arrive at a verdict that contradicts the law, we cannot interfere in the decision of the court.”

Tunisian public responses to the case have, as usual, been mixed. While many have condemned the conviction, others see the Facebook posts as more than just the private expression of individuals, but as an incitement to disturb the public order. Others have fallen in the middle, condemning the offensive acts while calling for civil fines against the accused.

The issue of publication of offensive materials continues to be a sensitive issue in the country. The fact that Tunisia still has a Ben Ali era criminal law code has made these cases even more extreme. The two men were prosecuted under a section of the criminal code used by Ben Ali to imprison anyone who went against the regime.

One thing is certain, these sentences will, just as in the Ben Ali era, make Facebook users think twice before posting their personal views. That is a true irony in post-revolutionary Tunisia – the authorities may not be watching – but free speech is anything but assured.