Two Tunisian rappers have been given 21 month jail terms in absentia for insulting officials, their lawyer said Monday, criticising the ruling as a new attack on freedom of expression.
“This trial took place (on Friday) without us being summoned,” said Ghazi Mrabet.
“I will speak to my clients to challenge this ruling, but jail sentences demonstrate that the relentless campaign against artistic freedom, freedom of expression, continues,” he added.
“It is a ruling with immediate effect,” the lawyer said, indicating that the accused, Ala Yaacoubi, who goes by the rap name Weld El 15, and Klay BBJ, could be jailed at any moment.
The two young men, who were arrested at a concert in the eastern town of Hammamet on August 22 and freed the following day, were convicted of insulting officials, violating public morals and defamation.
They had not been told about their trial or even the charges against them, Mrabet said.
Denouncing gross procedural failings, the lawyer said he only found out about Friday’s trial and court ruling through the local media but had to wait until Monday for confirmation.
The justice ministry and the judiciary refuse to comment on court procedures and decisions.
One of the two rappers, Weld El 15, was jailed in June for a controversial song he wrote called “The Police are Dogs”, and freed on appeal in July after his two-year sentence was reduced on appeal to a six-month suspended term.
The police have said that the words of their songs had been offensive to public officials, a crime that carries a possible jail sentence in Tunisia.
When he was arrested, Weld El 15, whose real name is Ala Yaacoubi, was violently beaten, according to his lawyer, who said he had a medical certificate confirming that he was unable to work for 16 days.
The rapper’s original trial sparked a scandal at the time, with members of the opposition and human rights groups calling it an attack on freedom of speech.
But Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh dismissed those claims, saying the musician was being prosecuted “for inciting hatred and calling for the death of police and magistrates.”
Thameur Mekki, who heads a supporters group for the musicians, on Monday accused the authorities of taking “revenge” on them.
“It is revenge… The authorities have not understood that these matters should give rise to public debate, not trials and the permanent harassment of rappers.”
“We’re going to organise ourselves, and mobilise with the support of human rights organisations,” he said.
Mrabet has insisted his client did not sing the song in question at the concert in Hammamet.
“He sang his old repertoire, songs dating to the time of (ousted strongman Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali,” the lawyer said, speaking the day after the arrest last month.
During the Ben Ali era, police were viewed as tools of repression against critics of the regime.
Two and a half years after Ben Ali’s overthrow, the opposition regularly denounces the interior ministry for working on behalf of the Islamist party Ennahda, which heads Tunisia’s coalition government.
The government and judiciary have been criticised in particular for seeking to roll back freedom of expression since the revolution, while Ennahda is often accused of trying to Islamise society.
The rappers’ trial is the latest in a number of cases that have raised rights concerns in the North African country.
These include the pre-trial detention last month of cameraman Mourad Meherzi after he filmed an artist, who was also jailed, throwing an egg at the minister of culture.