Tight security marked Thursday’s resumption in the trial of a Tunisian TV station director charged with violating sacred values and disturbing public order for having screened the Franco-Iranian animated feature film Persepolis.
Islamists and supporters of Nessma TV chief Nabil Karoui held rival protests outside the court in the capital, Tunis. Police stood on heavy guard, screening anyone attempting to get into the trial chamber.
Acting like spoiled 5 year-olds who don’t get their way, dozens of young hardline Salafist Muslims set up a loudspeaker outside the courthouse, waving black flags inscribed with Islamic verses and placards calling for Karoui’s execution. They shouted “Get lost! Shameful media get lost!” On the other side of the courthouse, Nessma supporters sang the national anthem and chanted “Free media in Tunisia!”
“It’s a decisive day for freedom of speech and of the press,” Karoui told French news service Agence France-Presse. “The verdict will be historic and will have an effect on the region.”
“Free expression is on trial in Tunisia after the revolution, and this poses a danger to Tunisians who call for the right to express themselves without permission from religious leaders,” Karoui told reporters. “I hope that we can turn a page on this once and for all and return calmly to work at Nessma.”
Last October 7, Karoui’s station broadcast the Oscar-nominated Persepolis (2007), which, through a young girl, tells about the Iranian revolution and its effects. The film infuriated hardliners due to a scene depicting God, whose representation is banned in Islam.
Within two days of the broadcast, Islamic militants held violent demonstrations in Tunis, attacking the TV station’s offices and Karoui’s home.
The court said Thursday that verdict will be delivered May 3. Karoui’s trial opened November 16 and has been adjourned twice.
The trial resumed with Nessma television denouncing what it called an attempt to silence it and complaining that its right to operate freely had been taken away.
Amnesty International urged the country’s new Islamist-led government not to repeat the repression of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader overthrown in the Arab Spring.
“Prosecuting and convicting people on the basis of the peaceful expression of their views, even if some might find them offensive, is totally unacceptable and not what we would expect from the new Tunisia,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s regional deputy director. “It’s reminiscent of the violations of the ousted Ben Ali government and must stop.”
“The judiciary was used in Ben Ali’s day to attack freedom of expression, and we hope that it will not be used now to attack freedoms but to protect them,” said human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, a member of the defense team for Nessma.
France’s International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) sent an observer. French lawyers were in court as well.
The trial “involves a fundamental principle, that of freedom of expression and freedom of creation,” said French magistrate Antoine Garapon of FIDH. He called the trial a test of Tunisia’s democracy.
French press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders sent an observer to the trial. Olive Gre said that she hoped for an acquittal. The trial “never should have taken place,” she told AFP.
“A trial over a film damages the image of Tunisia abroad,” said longtime secular politician Nejib Chebbi.