Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

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.