Discontent over an animated movie stirs violent clashes between Islamists and Freedom Fighters

“I was in front of the courthouse. A man ripped off the sign on which I wrote “In the Quran, even Satan have the right to speak.” Other men called me a “disbeliever”… Another man came next to me and threatened me: “get away from here or we’ll make you disappear”… Other bearded men with black flags treat freedom expression defenders with ‘disbelievers’ and other slogans that I cannot remember now…”

It’s with these words Lilia Weslaty, human rights activist and journalist, describes her today’s participation to the support gathering for the Tunisian television channel, Nessma TV and to freedom of expression.

On the other side, numerous Salafists chanted slogans such “hey Coward Media; Muslim people don’t get insulted “and” the people want the fall of the channel.”

They also chanted a slogan inspired from one of Gadhafi’s speeches “street, street, house, house, we’re after you disbelievers”. A slogan interpreted as a shaming being inspired from the speech of a bloody dictator and for categorizing Tunisians into two camps.

Today’s trial is the result of the broadcast of award-winning film ‘Persepolis’ on the 1979 Iranian Revolution, told from the perspective of a little girl. The French animated movie aired in late October provoked angry reactions and is alleged to be blasphemous because it includes a scene showing a representation of God.

Criminal proceedings against the owner of a Tunisian television channel, that screened the film ‘Persepolis’ is an affront to freedom of expression – declared Amnesty International before the trial, scheduled for today, January 23rd.

Nabil Karoui, owner of Nessma TV, is being judged for violation of “sacred values” and “disturbing public order”. A complaint was filed against the owner and two employees of Nessma TV by 144 people, including lawyers. If convicted, he might be sentenced up to 3 years in prison.

Nabil Karoui’s house was set on fire on October 14th following a demonstration outside the offices of Nessma TV, in the center of Tunis. A group of Salafists is suspected to be after the incident.

“It is very disturbing to see Nabil Karoui prosecuted only because he released a film showing scenes conceived of God, said Philip Luther, Acting Director of the program in North Africa and Middle East at Amnesty International.

The trial got postponed to April 19thcouple of lawyers explained today that their position is to defend the Spirit of God harmed by the cartoon representation. They claim respecting the freedom expression by carrying their discontent to court. “Every society has it’s own sacred beliefs to be respected and that’s the limit of freedom of expression”, says one of the lawyers.

Nabil Karoui announced today his discontent with the ban on the media to film the trial unlike the first time. He mentioned this is not a good sign.

This is the first opinion case in new Tunisia. Today they are not judging Nabil Karoui, yet they are judging ten million Tunisians and their dreams of democracy, freedoms and progress.

“I’m optimist but also feeling sorry. We’re being judged here. They burnt my house and tried to kill few of the people they work with me and my family. Those who did this are still free out there. I hope Tunisia won’t turn into a Freedoms’ Guantanamo”.

A Salafist guy is caught on tape today calling not to use violence against those who support Nessma TV’s case.

Nevertheless, a number of well-known journalists and public figures have been subject to verbal and physical violence today. Zied Krichen and Hamadi Redissi a law professor at Tunis University were subject to moral and physical attacks by Slafists gathering in front of the courthouse.

“I had to go out for a coffee before returning to the courtroom. And that’s where some individuals, targeted me personally and assaulted me. The academic Hamadi, who tried to protect me was also verbally abused and received the same punches and kicks”, says Zied Krichen.

Hamadi J’bali, Prime Minister of the newly elected government denounced the attacks in a word aired later in the day.

Abd Halim Masoodi, journalist and TV presenter at Nessma TV got equally assaulted today. Reasons might be linked to one of his late debates where he interrupted his guest Kamel Chihawi, a university professor claiming the broadcast of French-Iranian animated movie being part of a bigger agenda. A plan aiming at influencing the people and scare them from the Islamists.

Or how else you explain the broadcast of such a movie only 2 weeks prior the elections, he said.

Questioned later, the TV presenter mentioned being present today to support the TV channel not as a journalist but a regular citizen who supports freedom of expression.

A group of people gathered around me in a scary way acting as they hold the sole truth and the sole answer. They treated me of Atheist and non-believer and they hit me. He adds.

Tunisian journalists have been the target of multiple attacks in recent months, led by members of the security forces and others, according to reports.

“Tunisia is progressing in some areas of human rights, but it clearly has much work to be done to respect freedom of expression,” said Philip Luther.

Today’s trial is echoing hard in different corners of the Tunisian web and also traditional media.

The recent Amnesty International report entitled “A year of rebellion. The human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa” shows that the provisional government of Tunisia has not yet developed the comprehensive reform of human rights demanded by the demonstrators since a year ago.

One year after the ouster of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali over a series of street demonstrations ignited by the self-immolation of a young man from the semi-rural city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th, the authorities have taken some initial positive steps, including the adoption of important treaties on human rights and giving, in general, more freedom to the media and organizations defending human rights.

In most cases, however, the country’s security forces are still not brought to account for their actions and victims of human rights violations continue to wait for justice – conducted Amnesty International in a recent press communique.

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