Tunisian blogger Wajdi Mahouechi was sentenced to two years in prison for criticizing the country’s judiciary, North Africa Journal reported on November 24, Tuesday. The judgement was widely condemned by human rights groups and others as an assault on the freedom of speech and expression in Tunisia. Mahouechi was reportedly arrested after he criticized the public prosecutor in Tunisia for not arresting and prosecuting an Imam who had posted social media material which justified last month’s killing of a public school teacher in France. The French teacher was killed for exhibiting images of the Prophet in his classroom as part of a class on freedom of expression.
Mahouechi had responded to the video posted by the Imam on Facebok with another video in which he criticizes the public prosecutor for not taking action against the Muslim cleric. In the video, he also claims that the public prosecution has failed to take action against a complaint made by him against two police officers in 2019 for physically assaulting him. Mahouechi was arrested the next day by officers from the Hay El Khadra Unit for Combating Terrorism and Organized Crime and later interrogated for around four hours. His lawyer, Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, was allowed to be present during the investigation.
During investigation, Mahouechi defended himself by claiming to the authorities that he was not targeting anyone individually or specifically, but only acting as a whistleblower against the Imam who according to him was propagating extremism and terrorism.
Mahouechi was accused under multiple serious charges, including “accusing officials of crimes without providing proof,” “offending others via telecommunications networks,” “public calumny,” and “insulting an officer on duty.” Meanwhile, no legal action was taken against the Imam. On November 12, the Tunis First Instance Court convicted him of all charges and sentenced him to two years in prison along with a fine of 1,000 Tunisian Dinars (USD 300).
31-year-old Mahouechi is a regular blogger and commentator on various social and political issues in Tunisia. Following his conviction and imprisonment, his lawyer stated, “we are seeing an increase of prosecutions that remind us of the arrests and trials of bloggers and social media critics in 2017. The prosecutions never stopped really. They just slowed down and now they’re back.”
Human rights organizations tracking human rights violations and judicial excesses in Tunisia have criticized the judgment against Mahouechi. Amnesty International stated that since 2018, at least 40 Tunisians have been criminally prosecuted by the Tunisian authorities for “publishing online posts critical of local authorities, the police or other state officials.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) also expressed concern about a growing number of social media users, bloggers and human rights activists being targeted with criminal charges on the basis of social media posts critical of the government. In two different reports last year, HRW documented at least 15 Tunisians facing criminal charges such as “spreading false information,” “harm of others through telecommunications networks,” “accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without furnishing proof of their guilt,” “calumny,” and “insulting the head of state.”
According to HRW, many of these criminal charges date back to the time of former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in a popular revolution in 2011. Since 2017, at least six Tunisians have received prison sentences for exercising their freedom of speech and expression on social media and sharing their views on various issues. So far, Mahouechi’s prison sentence is the harshest and longest to be awarded by a Tunisian court in a similar case, raising concern among activists and human rights groups.