The trial of the Tunisian graffiti artists arrested last month in the industrial town of Gabes will begin on Wednesday, putting to the test, supporters say, freedom of expression for the poorest sectors of society in post-revolution Tunisia.
Oussama Bouagila and Chahine Berriche, members of the activist street-art group Zwelwa, were arrested on November 3 as they wrote on a wall: “the people want rights for the poor.” The two students were released to await trial, facing charges of defying the state of emergency, writing on government property, and spreading messages that disturb the public order.
The trial of the two activists will follow a recent resurgence in economic unrest that fueled Tunisia’s revolution two years ago. Gabes was the site, amid poor economic conditions, of nearly a month of riotous demonstrations that flared up again last week in the impoverished interior city of Siliana, where more than 200 people were injured before the replacement of the local governor calmed protesters.
“In Tunisia, since the revolution, you can talk about everything that is democracy, human rights, the relation between the Islamists and the secularists. But when you speak about the big problems, the poverty, the social justice, you will be judged,” Bouagila said.
Bochra Haj Hmida, a member of the artists’ 5-person legal team, said there are no laws against graffiti in Tunisia, where street-art was the medium of choice for many activists during the revolution. She said the students were being targeted for their socio-political message.
The Zwewla movement, which means “the poor” in Tunisian Arabic, aims to confront social issues through graffiti, with their signature Z tag reminiscent of the Zorro’s mark. The group, which has more than 3,500 supporters on Facebook, has outspokenly defended its members in collaboration with a network of activists and civil society organizations.
Protesters held a support rally in Carthage last month, and an online campaign, called “Graffiti is not a crime,” has collected more than 1,250 supporters on Facebook.
At a press conference on Saturday, Zwewla called for the charges to be dropped.
Amor Ghedamsi, secretary general of Tunisia’s Artists’ Syndicate, accused the government of stifling artistic expression, comparing the trial of the two students to an attack by religious extremists this summer against an art exhibit in the upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa.
“Salafists threatened us in the name of religion, and the government is doing the same in the name of law and justice,” Ghedamsi said.
“I call for the solidarity of the organizations, of all people that defend the right of man and the rights of expression,” Bouagila said. “The fight is not finished. We are always together for a better Tunisia, a better life in Tunisia, and for the poor and the miserable in Tunisia to achieve a just life.”