Tunisian Blogger Jailed for Insulting Islam


Human Rights Watch said on February 7 that Tunisian authorities must abide by their country’s new constitution and immediately quash the sentences of those convicted under laws that violate human rights. One of the convicted happens to be Jaber Mejri, a blogger who has been imprisoned since 2012 for publishing caricatures that were deemed insulting to Islam.

On March 28, 2012 the First Instance Criminal Court of Mahdia sentenced Mejri and fellow blogger Ghazi Beji to seven and a half years in prison each, for harming “public order or good morals” and “insulting others through public communication networks.”

Beji fled the country and became the first Tunisian to receive political asylum in France but Mejri found himself in Mahdia prison. The courts of appeal and cassation maintained the lower court ruling. However, President Moncef Marzouki has the authority to excuse Mejri.

“Tunisia’s new constitution has bold protections for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. Mejri’s sentence violates his freedom of speech, and the government should celebrate the new day in Tunisia by freeing him,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director, Human Rights Watch.

Mejri had written satirically about Islam and Prophet Muhammad and reprinted crude caricatures of the prophet from an essay by Beji.

While the new constitution has a provision that make the state “the protector of religion” and requires it to prohibit “offenses to the sacred,” Article 31 allows “freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication” as well. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee considers it a violation of the right to freedom of expression when countries impose “prohibitions on demonstrations of lack of respect for a religion or other system of belief, including blasphemy laws.”

While speaking at a conference organized by the Council of Foreign Relations in September 2013, Marzouki said Mejri had been imprisoned for his own safety because Islamist fundamentalists were reacting violently to his blog posts. He also implied that Mejri would be freed once the political situation cooled down.

Tunisia’s interim governing authorities have made important advances toward the consolidation of human rights since the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. They repealed repressive laws on associations, political parties and the press but they have yet to modify the penal code provisions that allow prison terms for defamation and vaguely worded offenses such as harming “public morals” and “public order.” Today, courts in Tunisia continue to apply these provisions to prosecute people for speech considered objectionable.

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