A Tunisian rapper jailed for two years for a song in which he insulted the police was freed on appeal on Tuesday, to the relief of his supporters who hailed the court ruling as a victory for freedom of expression.
Ala Yaacoubi, who goes by the rap name Weld El 15, was imprisoned on June 13 for a song he wrote called “The Police are Dogs.”
The Tunis court of appeal reduced the sentence on Tuesday to a suspended six-month term, allowing him to go free.
“I’m happy to get out of jail and I will continue with my art and my music,” he told AFP as he left the Mornaguia prison outside the capital.
“I was freed thanks to the support, to my friends and to the pressure” exerted on the Tunisian authorities, said the 25-year-old singer, who appeared pale and thin.
Numerous activists had called for Yaacoubi’s release, and supporters greeted the outcome of his appeal as recognition by the judiciary of artistic freedom of expression.
“It’s a victory for freedom and democracy, for Weld El 15 who did nothing wrong but made a work of art,” attorney Ghazi Mrabet said.
As the verdict was announced, shouts of joy erupted outside the court, where friends and supporters of the rapper had gathered.
“After being shaken by a great wave of concern, today’s verdict is a relief for us. It has given reassurance,” said Thameur Mekki.
The severity of the two-year jail sentence handed down last month sparked clashes outside the courthouse between police and supporters of Yaacoubi, some of whom were badly beaten.
Two other rappers and a French-Tunisian journalist were later charged with abusing public officials in the course of duty and attacks on public morals, and are due to stand trial in October.
The original jail sentence was criticised as harsh even by some government officials. Members of the opposition and human rights groups called it an attack on freedom of speech, a charge rejected by Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh.
“He was not tried on the basis of his work, or the freedom of expression, but for inciting hatred and calling for the death of police and magistrates,” Larayedh said on Monday, in an interview with television channel France 24.
In a video of the song which was posted on YouTube, the rapper is heard saying: “Police, magistrates, I’m here to tell you one thing, you dogs; I’ll kill police instead of sheep; Give me a gun I’ll shoot them.”
The decision to release Yaacoubi comes less than a week after three European activists from topless protest group Femen walked free when their four-month jail sentences for baring their breasts in Tunis were also suspended on appeal.
Tunisia’s Islamist-led government has been accused by critics of seeking to curb civil liberties won in the popular uprising that overthrew veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
In March last year, two young graduates, both atheists, were sentenced to more than seven years for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.
And Amina Sboui, a Tunisian activist with the topless protest group, was arrested in May for painting the word “Femen” on a wall near a cemetery in the city of Kairouan, in protest against a planned gathering of hardline Islamists.
She remains in custody waiting to hear whether she will be prosecuted for desecrating a cemetery and indecency, which carry prison terms of two years and six months respectively.
Human rights groups have written an open letter to French President Francois Hollande, who is expected in Tunis later this week, asking him to raise with the government concerns about its record.