Tunisian loses appeal over cartoons of Prophet

TUNIS Mon Jun 25, 2012 3:48pm BST

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TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian court on Monday upheld a seven year sentence against a young Tunisian who posted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fuelled allegations that the country's new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech.

Jabeur Mejri was convicted of upsetting public order and morals in a country where Muslim values have taken on a greater significance since a revolt last year ousted secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ushering the Islamist Ennahda party into power.

The initial sentence was handed down on March 28 against Mejri, who is in jail, and against Ghazi Beji, who was sentenced in absentia. Mejri was able to appeal, but Beji remains on the run.

Mejri's lawyer criticised the ruling which she said proved Tunisia's judiciary was still subject to political interference some 18 months after the revolution.

"This is a very severe sentence and suggests that the Tunisian judiciary has not yet rid itself of political interference," Bochra Belhaj Hmida told Reuters.

"We should at least seek to rule justly. This is unjust and has ruined the life of a young unemployed man. The judge showed no mercy and no consideration for this youth's circumstances."

Mejri did not have a major following on Facebook, she added, and his work, which is critical of religion, had drawn little public interest before the trial made headlines.

Tunisia electrified the Arab world in January last year, when protests forced Ben Ali to flee after 23 years in power.

But the revolution has created tension between conservative Muslims who believe their faith should have a bigger role in public life and secularists who say freedom of expression and women's rights are now threatened.

The government says it has a duty to defend public decency, but its secularist critics say it is using the justice system to crack down on anyone who does not fall into line with religious orthodoxy.

The court decision comes two weeks after puritanical Salafi Islamists and others rampaged through Tunis and other cities in protest over an exhibition that showed art works they deemed offensive to Islam.

The head of private television station Nessma was also fined in May for broadcasting Persepolis, an award-winning animated film that includes a depiction of God, which outraged Islamists.

The film had been licensed for viewing in Tunisia several years earlier and the verdict drew U.S. criticism.

In February, the publisher of a tabloid was jailed for eight days and fined after he printed a picture of a German-Tunisian footballer and his naked girlfriend on the front page.

"Political interference has just moved from one group to another. Nothing has changed," said Hmida.

(Reporting by Zoubeir Souissi and Lin Noueihed; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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