Tunisia should mark its national day of internet freedom on 13 March by releasing immediately and unconditionally 28-year-old blogger Jabeur Meiri, who has been in prison for more than a year, Amnesty International said.

“It’s ironic that on 13 March last year, President Moncef Marzouki was giving a speech honouring bloggers while, at the same time, a court was trying Jabeur Mejri for his online posts,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Mejri was arrested on 5 March 2012 and sentenced on 28 March to seven and a half years in prison and a fine of 1200 Tunisian Dinars – US$757 – after a court in Mahdia, eastern Tunisia, deemed posts he made online insulting to Islam and Muslims.

On 23 June 2012 the Monastir Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and his sentence. His lawyers then took the case to the Court of Cassation, which is still due to rule on the case.

“Jabeur Mejri is a prisoner of conscience, he should never have been convicted, let alone sent to prison. The Tunisian authorities must quash his conviction and sentence against him,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

As Amnesty International is launching an international campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of Jabeur Mejri, his sister told the organization: “Jabeur is worried and depressed because he has been in prison for a year now, and he feels that he has been forgotten.”

Last year the Tunisian President designated 13 March as a national day for internet freedom, in honour of online political activist Zouhair Yahyaoui, who died on 13 March 2005 at the age of 36 after spending 18 months in prison.

However, other Tunisian bloggers continue to face legal proceedings for their online comments. Jabeur Mejri’s friend, Ghazi Beji, was also convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in the same trial although he had at that point fled the country for his safety.

In another case blogger Olfa Riahi faces charges, including charges of defamation after publishing information on her blog about former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rafik Abdessalam relating to allegations that he stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Tunis and that public funds were misused.

The Minister denied the allegations and filed a complaint against Olfa Riahi on charges of damaging its reputation and that of other public institutions.

“While Tunisia celebrates internet freedom, in reality it is tightening its hold on those who peacefully criticize the government, speak out or express their opinions. It is time for Tunisia to show that it is truly moving forward to respect freedom of opinion and expression, by immediately repealing laws which unduly restrict freedom of opinion and expression..”

Note to editors:
Jabeur Meiri was found guilty of publishing material liable to cause harm to public order or good morals, for harming others through these publications and for assaulting public morals, under Articles 121 and 226 of the Penal Code, and Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code.

Despite the adoption of new decrees on press freedom and audiovisual material abolishing prison sentences for defamation, in a number of cases against journalists, bloggers and artists, articles 121 and 226 of the Penal Code have been used. These articles dating back to the Ben Ali era prescribe punishments for the offences of “violating sacred values” and “disturbing the public order and morals”.