Ghazi Beji and Jaber Mejri are the two young Tunisian men who were recently sentenced to seven and a half years of prison for charges of attack on public order and morality.
Mejri, an English teacher, is currently in custody following his arrest by Tunisian police in early March. Beji, who is a 27 year-old biotechnology food engineer, managed to flee Tunisia and is currently in Greece seeking asylum.
The two were arrested after they each uploaded a manuscript to the Internet that was critical of Islam. Beji’s book entitled Wahm al Islam (the Illusion of Islam) was written in Arabic while Dark Land, by Mejri was written in English. The books included caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which are considered offensive by many Muslims.
In an interview with Tunisia Live, Beji, who describes himself as an atheist, discussed the events that led to charges being laid against the pair.
“I wrote my book to express my view about Islam and to unveil how Muhammad married Aicha when she was 6 years old and other truths. After the Revolution, in March 2011, I said to myself Tunisia is a free and democratic country now and I should try to publish my book. I contacted several book publishers in Mahdia but they all refused to publish it. So I opted to upload it on 4shared.com,” stated Beji.
Beji said that Mejri’s book Dark Land became very controversial in Mahdia as he pictured a Tunisian Salafist as a monkey. The caricature triggered the anger of the Salafist community and they threatened to throw acid on his face.
In addition, according to Beji, Mejri also expressed his support for Israel. “After being persecuted by Tunisians and Arabs, Jabeur Mejri started sympathizing with Israel. But I don’t necessarily share his views,” he explained.
Beji said that he was forced to flee Tunisia after hearing that his friend had been taken into custody by police.
“When the security forces first arrested Mejri, they told him that they detained him to protect him from any Salafist attack. But later, they assaulted and tortured him. I was told that he mentioned my name under torture,” said Beji.
“When I heard of what happened to my friend. I knew that I had to run away,” he added.
“I went to Algeria, Turkey and then crossed illegally to Greece. Here, I am now trying to contact NGOs and other countries to grant me asylum,” he said.
Beji is currently living in a city in northeastern Greece and is relying on relatives in France for financial support.
The representative of Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, Emna Galeli, said that the organization condemned the judgment and considered it is “an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of belief.” She expressed concern that religion is being used to impose a new type of censorship.
Galeli added that Article 121 of the Tunisian penal code, under which the two were charged, has been loosely interpreted after the Revolution and that it should be amended. Article 121(c) of the code dates from the Ben Ali era and forbids the distribution, sale or display of propaganda tracts or documents, foreign or otherwise, which are harmful to public order or morals. Punishment ranges from six months to five years in prison and a fine of up to 1200 dinars.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights and Amnesty Tunisia are examining the case and will soon release communiqués very soon.
Mohamed Trabelsi, the lawyer for Ghazi Beji, said that because his client was tried in absentia, he could not appeal unless he returned to Tunisia. Trabelsi and the General Prosecutor of Mahdia have both confirmed that lawyers have lodged an appeal for Jabeur Mejri.