On 28 May Monatir Appeal Court is expected to issue a verdict in the case of two atheist friends Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji. In March a primary court sentenced the two to a seven-and-a-half year jail term over the publishing of prophet Mohammedd cartoons.
Defense lawyers chose only to appeal on behalf of Jabeur Mejri, since Ghazi Beji has fled the country. “We would lose appeal if we defend him [Ghazi Beji] in absentia”, said Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, a defense lawyer, and a human rights activist.
To convict the two friends, Mahdia Primary Court employed Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code, which states the following:
“The distribution, putting up for sale, public display, or possession, with the intent to distribute, sell, display for the purpose of propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers, whether of foreign origin or not, that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals is prohibited.”
Anyone who violates this law risks a fine of 120 TND (76USD) to 1200 TND (760 USD), and a jail term of six months to five years.
Article 121 (3), adopted on 3 May 2001 as a way to tighten control over press freedom, was repeatedly used during the post Ben Ali era.
The controversial law earned Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji a five-year jail term, and a 1200TND (760USD) fine for publishing content liable to “disturb public order”, and six months for “moral transgression”. The court also sentenced them to two more years in prison for “insulting others via public communication networks”.
The Court of First Instance of Tunis also used this law to fine both Nessma TV boss Nabil Karoui over the broadcast of French-Iranian film Persepolis, and Nasreddine Ben Saida, the general director of the Arabic-language daily newspaper Attounissia over the publishing of a front page photo of a Real Madrid footballer with his naked girlfriend.
“As lawyers and activists we are volunteering to defend Mejri, and Beji. This is our tool to combat abusive laws adopted during the Ben Ali regime. But it is the job of the legislative branch, that is the national constituent assembly, to amend such laws,” explained Mrs Bel Haj Hmida.