Tunisia must drop unjust charges against graffiti activists

Two activists in Tunisia, who face charges in relation to their drawing of graffiti last November, must not be jailed for exercising their freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today.Oussama Bouajila, aged 25, and Chahine Berrich, 23, from the anti-poverty street art group Zwewla (“the poor”) are charged with “spreading false information with the aim of disrupting the public order”, “defying the state of emergency” and “writing on a public building without permission”.They were charged in November after they were caught writing slogans in support of the poor on a university wall in the city of Gabes, in the south east of Tunisia.“These men should not be penalized for what their graffiti said. It is unjustifiable to threaten them with prison terms simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.Both men could face up to five years each in prison if convicted. Their trial, which was postponed in December, resumes on Wednesday 23 January.They have been charged with “disrupting public order” under Article 121(3) of the Penal Code, which has been used repeatedly by the Tunisian authorities to repress freedom of expression.Article 121(3) criminalizes the publication, distribution or sale of information that disrupts public order or public morals.Amnesty International has previously expressed concern over the continuing state of emergency in Tunisia and the potential restrictions on human rights that it allows. “The state of emergency should not be used as a blanket justification to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression, a right that Tunisians fought so hard for during the uprising two years ago,” said Philip Luther. Amnesty International is calling for two of the charges – “spreading false information with the aim of disrupting the public order” and “defying the state of emergency” –  to be dropped. It considers that the penalty for the third charge – “writing on a public building without permission” – should not effectively amount to a punishment for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression.