Blogger’s case tests Tunisia’s tolerance for dissent
Yassine Ayari trial raises concerns over which direction the new Tunisian government is likely to take to curb dissent.
Tunis – Dozens of protesters, braving the rain, gathered outside the Military Court of Appeals in Tunis on Tuesday demanding the immediate release of Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari chanting “Down with military trials“, while carrying placards that read: “Free Yassine Ayari .”
After eight hours of testimonies, the court deferred the verdict to March 3 in Ayari’s case, who will remain in custody pending its decision.
Ayari, 33, was charged with defaming military officials in Facebook posts published last summer that were critical of former Minister of National Defence; an offence for which he was originally convicted in absentia before his official trial even took place.
Last January he was sentenced to one year in prison under Article 91 of the Tunisian Code of Military Justice, prohibiting defamation of the military, attacks on its honour, and the undermining of morale.
Ayari’s case raised concerns among pro-democracy activists over whether the new Tunisian government will make a clean break with the past or return to authoritarian rule and curb freedom of expression and dissent.
OPINION: Tunisia still on the brink
The sentencing of a civilian by a military court has alarmed human rights campaigners and activists sparking fears for freedom of speech. “As long as such laws remain, those in power can’t resist the temptation to silence criticism and dissent,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The group urged the removal of military courts’ jurisdiction over civilians. But more disturbing than the case itself, say activists, is the lack of attention the verdict received in Tunisia. Local organisations seemed more reluctant to criticise the case, while international groups have been far more zealous in defending Ayari.
I have only one message to the new government: If they want to govern in a democratic country and not to experience the fate of Ben Ali, they have to free my brother and other young people, they have to let bloggers and people express themselves the way they want.
“The actual discourse is not new, because of [the terrorist attacks,] we cannot talk about our rights and freedoms, that’s the equation, the government is bargaining with this equation,” said Samia Hammouda, a member of Parliament. “This [government] is pushing citizen to renounce their own rights.”
Hammouda is also the wife of lawyer Mohamed Abou who was imprisoned for online dissent in 2005. “Yassine Ayari’s trial is a masquerade for Tunisian justice,” Hammouda added as she came out of the courtroom.
In recent months, Ayari had published blogs that are critical of Tunisia’s new president, Beji Caid Essebsi, and of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, while expressing support for Tunisia’s former president, Moncef Marzouki, who himself visited Ayari’s family on the eve of the trial to show his support.
“We hope that the new government is not using Yassine Ayari’s case to silence and [terrorise] the youth of Tunisia,” said Moutia, Yassine’s brother.
Ayari is the fourth civilian since 2011 to be sentenced under Article 91 for criticising or defaming the military and not the first to cast doubt on Tunisia’s democratic transition process.
Last November, Sahbi Jouini, representative for the Union of Security Forces, was also sentenced in absentia by a military tribunal in Tunis to two years of imprisonment for his comments on the TV channel Ettounsiya.
Jouini claimed during a TV talk show that the defence ministry had received prior notice about an armed group attack that killed 16 Tunisian soldiers and wounded another 23 last July, but had failed to take protective measures. His hearing will be held on March 31.
“For me, the revolution is now over. They are pushing youth against a wall and here’s the proof: After Yassine, there was the case of Zitouna TV, Aymen Ben Ammar and it will continue,” Saida Ayari, Yassine’s mother told Al Jazeera.
RELATED: They are doing the same things as Ben Ali
Those decisions follow the sentencing of film-maker Ines Ben Othman in a civilian court last January to two months of prison for insulting a police officer.
The charges were filed against the film-maker after she attempted to submit a complaint for online harassment against the deputy director of a police station in a suburb of Tunis.
The police claimed Ben Othman violated Article 125 of the Penal Code, which calls for up to a year’s imprisonment and a fine for insulting a public official while on duty.
Well known for denouncing corruption within the security system, Ben Othman’s defence committee denounced the manipulation and instrumentalisation of the law against the activist.
These cases have highlighted parts of the Tunisian Military Code of Justice and Civilian Penal Code that remain out of step with international human rights norms, but above all, leave an everlasting form of temptation for the political power to set red lines for activists in the country.
“I have only one message to the new government: If they want to govern in a democratic country and not to experience the fate of Ben Ali, they have to free my brother and other young people, they have to let bloggers and people express themselves the way they want,” warned Moutia Ayari.