The decision by a military court to continue the detention of Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari is a gross violation of the right to freedom of expression, said Amnesty International as his re-trial started today.
The organization called for his immediate release from prison, and for his conviction on charges that he had “defamed the army” in a series of Facebook posts to be quashed. Yassine Ayari was sentenced to three years in jail last November.
“It is unacceptable that Yassine Ayari has been imprisoned for criticizing state officials. As a civilian, he should never have been tried by a military court and he should be released immediately,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“Tunisia’s new parliament, elected two months ago, should make it a priority to repeal laws that make defaming state officials and institutions a criminal offence, and that allow civilians to be tried by military courts.”
Yassine Ayari was arrested at Tunis airport as he stepped off a flight from France on 24 December. He was informed that a military court had tried him in absentia in November, and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. He was taken to Mornaguia prison.
Yassine Ayari was convicted of “defaming the army” in posts on his Facebook page, dating from August and September 2014. The posts criticized Defence Minister Ghazi Jeribi, as well as specific appointments made in the military command.
Yassine Ayari was sentenced to the maximum prison term under provisions that prohibit attacks on the reputation of the army, as well as “criticism” that undermines the authority of military commanders.
His re-trial which resumed today has now been adjourned until 20 January, during which time he will remain behind bars.
Yassine Ayari is the latest Tunisian to have been prosecuted by military courts for criticizing the army or army officials.
“There is a persistent tendency to use the military courts to punish critics of the army,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“Tunisia must repeal laws that allow for such prosecutions if it wants to show it is making a clean break from the past,” she said.
Yassine Ayari was sentenced under Article 91 of the Code of Military Justice. The article prohibits attacks on the “dignity, reputation and morale” of the army, acts that weaken military discipline, obedience and respect for superiors, as well as the criticism of high military command actions or the criticism of army officers that harms their dignity.
Several Tunisian civilians have been tried by military courts recently for criticizing the army or state officials.
In November 2014, Sahbi Jouini, a police union leader, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison for defaming the army, after he accused the army of failing to use information adequately to combat terrorism.
In May 2013, blogger Hakim Ghanmi was tried before a military court for “undermining the reputation of the army” after he complained about the director of a military hospital.
Former presidential adviser Ayoub Massoudi was also convicted of “undermining the reputation of the army” and defaming a civil servant in 2012 after he publicly criticized the extradition of former Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi from Tunisia to Libya in June 2012.
International human rights standards are clear that civilians should not be prosecuted before military courts.
Although Tunisia’s Code of Military Justice was reformed in July 2011, it did not limit the jurisdiction of military courts to offences of a purely military nature committed by military personnel.
The right to freedom of expression also allows for the public criticism of officials and institutions.
The right is enshrined in Tunisia’s new constitution, as well in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a state party. Laws which provide special protection against criticism for public officials and criminalize defamation are not consistent with respect for freedom of expression. Defamation offences should be treated as a matter for civil litigation.