After two Tunisian citizens were condemned to a seven-year prison term for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam on March 28, Tunisian journalist Najoua Jo wrote, "In today's Tunisia, has anyone the right to be an atheist and to publicly avow it? The answer is clear: it is no." It was published by the Tunisian media outlet, Webdo.tn.
One of the two men, Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji, was convicted for publishing an essay in July 2011 entitled, "The Illusion of Islam," in which he depicted in a satiric way Prophet Mohammed's life with particular reference to his sexual habits. The other jailed man, Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri, simply published photos on his Facebook page containing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed drawn from Beji's book.
As reported by Human Rights Watch, the two men, both 28, have been tried and condemned by a Tunisian court for having published documents "of such a nature as to be detrimental to public order and morality." The two men were indicted on the basis of article 121 (3) of the penal code. Beji managed to flee to Europe on March 9 and was therefore tried in absentia. Mejri is deteriorating in prison.
This case is not the only one. A few days after that sentencing, the official media reported that another Tunisian court sentenced a man, Ramzi Absha, to four years in prison for desecrating the Koran. Absha had allegedly thrown copies of the Koran into lavatories at several mosques in the southern city of Ben Guerdane. According to his lawyer, was suffering from mental illness -- a fact totally ignored by the court.
According to the media outlet Tunisia Live, the Association for the Memorization of the Holy Quran and Imams and Mosques of Ben Guerdane, represented by a team of seven prosecutors, "demanded that the Absha's case be referred to the office of the public prosecutor to 'carry on with the investigation and require that a maximum sentence is inflicted on the accused.'
Mohamed Mars, the press officer representing the Association for the Memorization of the Holy Quran and Imams and Mosques of Ben Guerdane, stated to Tunisia Live that Absha's crime is "quite significant in principle." Mars added, however, that if Absha were to be diagnosed with a mental illness, "he would no longer be responsible for his act." He then hypocritically stated that he was not willing to contradict the judge's sentence on Absha, insisting that his association and he do not want to add a political dimension to the case.
The two cases, however, have already a political dimension: they both contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in its article 18 reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Nobody, therefore, has the right to be put in jail for his ideas and or profound convictions. Despite international norms that are formally accepted by all UN member states, Tunisia seems now attempting to dictate in what one should believe.
The international media are still refer to ruling Ennahda party as "moderate Islamist". Moderate probably means that it is not affiliated to Al-Qaeda, but since the party -- which has strong ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – is ruling, Tunisia is assisting in the repression, violence and jailing of people, whose only crime was to express their opinions. The AFP reported that the number of trials on charges of transgressing morality has surged since the Islamist Ennahda party won Tunisia's first post-revolution elections in October.
Human Rights Watch commented that this episode is an example of the need to repeal repressive laws dating to the Ben Ali era. This is certainly true, but it should be added that the Ben Ali regime was not particularly interested in going after miscreants, but used illiberal laws to mainly persecute political opponents. The new Ennahda Islamist rulers are instead keeping the Ben Ali's autocratic laws to persecute not only political opponents, but also those who deviate from the required path of religion.