The trial of a television station director accused of insulting sacred values for having screened the Franco-Iranian film “Persepolis” resumed Thursday in Tunisia under tight security.
Supporters of Nessma television chief Nabil Karoui and Islamists held rival protests outside the Tunis court, which was heavily guarded by police screening anyone trying to get into the chamber of the trial.
“It’s a decisive day for freedom of speech and of the press,” Karoui told AFP.
“The verdict will be historic and will have an effect on the region,” he added.
Karoui’s station broadcast the award-winning animated film “Persepolis”, which recounts the Iranian revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl, on October 7 last year.
But it sparked outrage because of a scene depicting God, whose representation is banned in Islam.
Within two days of the broadcast, Islamic militants attacked the television station’s offices and Karoui’s home during violent demonstrations in Tunis.
On Thursday, dozens of young hardline Salafist Muslims set up a loudspeaker outside the courthouse, waving the black Salafist flag and shouting “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!”.
Karoui’s trial opened on November 16 and has twice been adjourned, but the court said Thursday a verdict would be delivered on May 3.
Although Karoui has apologised for causing any offence, the case has become a cause celebre, a battleground between Islamist militants and secular, liberal elements protesting what they say is the rise of religious extremism.
A defence committee has been set up to provide support for Karoui. An earlier court hearing in January was disrupted, as the defendant denounced what he called a political trial and the court erupted in an uproar.
As the trial resumed Thursday, Nessma television complained it had been deprived of its right to operate freely and denounced what it said was an attempt to silence it.
Amnesty International called on Tunisia’s new Islamist-led government not to repeat the repression of ex-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, regional deputy director for the rights group.
“It’s reminiscent of the violations of the ousted Ben Ali government and must stop.”
French lawyers were also in court and France’s International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) sent an observer.
The trial “involves a fundamental principle, that of freedom of expression and freedom of creation”, said FIDH’s Antoine Garapon, a French magistrate, who called the trial a test of Tunisia’s democracy.
The French press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders has also sent an observer to the trial who said she hoped for an aquittal.
The trial “never should have taken place,” Olivia Gre told AFP.