The Tunisian authorities must quash the convictions of journalists Sofiene Chourabi and Mehdi Jlassi, who were fined for being “drunk in public” and “harming public morals”, amid concerns they have been punished for criticizing the government, Amnesty International said.
Chourabi, who gained popularity after criticizing former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's policies before the uprising in which he was toppled in 2011, was arrested along with Jlassi and a female friend on 5 August for drinking alcohol on a beach at Kelibia, in the country’s northeast, where they had been camping.
A Tunisian court on Tuesday convicted the pair and ordered them to pay a 104 Tunisian Dinar fine (US$66) each.
“Restrictions of individual freedoms in the name of public order must be necessary and proportionate, and must never be used as an excuse for prosecuting government critics and other political activists,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“These convictions must be quashed, and the Tunisian authorities must refrain from prosecuting individuals who freely exercise their fundamental rights, including their right to freedom of expression.
“It is disappointing to see that at a moment when Tunisia should be proving its commitment to human rights, these convictions send out quite the opposite message and are reminiscent of practices under Ben Ali.”
While the Tunisian authorities have the duty to protect public order, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly as well as the right to privacy should not be unduly restricted.
Following the sentencing, Sofiene Chourabi told Amnesty International he intended to appeal against the conviction.
“I did not do anything wrong, this is interference in my private life,” Chourabi said.
“I did not disturb anyone. We were asleep when the police arrested us, and our tents were in an isolated place, no one complained about us.”
A day before his arrest, Chourabi had called for a protest in front of the Interior Ministry against what he said were moves by the ruling Ennahda party - known for its platform of religious conservatism - to impose an increasing number of restrictions on public freedom.