Tunisia arrests blogger for "defaming" army officers

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A Tunisian flashes victory sign in Aryanah Province of Tunisia on December 21, 2014 as the votes of the second round of the country's first democratic presidential election are being counted . Anadolu / Amine Landoulsi

Published Friday, December 26, 2014

Tunisian authorities arrested a blogger as he returned from a trip abroad weeks after he was convicted of defaming army officers, his lawyer said Thursday.

Yassine Ayari, 33, was taken into custody overnight after landing at Tunis-Carthage airport and was whisked to jail in line with the court verdict pronounced against him.

The military prosecutor said Ayari had been sentenced in absentia on November 18 to three years' jail on charges of having "defamed army officers and senior defense ministry officials."

Ayari, who was returning from France when he was detained overnight, had accused officials of financial abuse, the prosecutor said in a statement.

The blogger was unaware of the verdict against him for "undermining" the army, his lawyer Sami Ben Amor said, adding that the verdict was "very harsh."

Ayari, who posted on Facebook that he stands by every word he has written, appealed the charges against him and a new hearing in the case has been set for January 6, Ben Amor said.

"This case undermines freedom of speech and is the first of its kind to emerge under the reign of Beji Caid Essebsi," said the lawyer, adding that "Yassine Ayari is paying the price of his political views."

Essebsi, an 88-year old anti-Islamist, won Tunisia's first free presidential election on Sunday, capping off the transition to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab uprisings.

His victory followed October legislative polls won by his Nidaa Tounes party, to which Ayari had published in recent months blogs very critical of.

Essebsi is a veteran politician who served under previous Tunisian regimes, including in the government of autocratic president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who was ousted in the 2011 uprising.

Under Ben Ali, trumped-up charges and fabricated accusations were common. They routinely led to imprisonment by a justice system that did the executive’s bidding to detain political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience.

Authorities are still following a 2003 law, which has been widely criticized by rights groups as it has been used to repress Islamist opposition to the ousted regime.

As Tunisia was preparing for its legislative and presidential elections, Amnesty International listed in September 10 steps for human rights in the country, one that stressed on “freedom of expression” and called, in line with international law, to amend laws or provisions that criminalize such a freedom.

“No one must be imprisoned or subjected to other criminal sanctions solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” the list said.

According to Amnesty, provisions in the Penal Code and the Code of Military Justice allow imprisonment on charges of defamation, and provisions in the Penal Code and the Telecommunication Code allow imprisonment for “undermining public order and public morals or violating sacred values.”

Authorities are also still following a 2003 “anti-terrorism” law, which has been widely criticized by rights groups as it has been used to repress Islamist opposition to the ousted regime.

But efforts to push an amended anti-terrorism law through parliament have failed even though a draft bill calling for defendants to have certain "guarantees" was submitted to lawmakers for a vote.

The justice minister said the failure was due to a lack of quorum in parliament where it needs the approval of 109 deputies out of the 217-member national assembly.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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