A leading human rights pressure group has called for the dropping of charges against two Tunisian journalists accused of criticizing the country’s armed forces.
Rached Khiari, chief editor of the newspaper and website Al Sadaa, (The Echo) and independent journalist, Jamel Arfaoui have both been charged in separate incidents relating to alleged criticism of the country’s armed forces.
Khiari has been charged with impugning the reputation of the army and undermining its morale after he repeated allegations in a Washington Post story on national television that the US had established a military base in Tunisia. The charges against Arfaoui date to a July article he wrote in the Tunisia Telegraph, criticizing the investigation into the crash of a military plane that killed two officers.
Both Khiari and Arfaoui, who are both free pending trial, face potential sentences of up to three years in prison under article 91 of the code of military justice, which criminalizes offenses against the dignity, reputation, or morale of the army.
Khiari faces additional charges of defamation of a civil servant under article 128 of the penal code, and damaging the morale of the army to harm national defense, under article 60bis of that code, which carries a possible death penalty.
Slamming the charges against Khiari and Arfaoui, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch, (HRW). Amna Guellali said in a statement, “Military courts are resorting again and again to the same article of military law to muzzle speech… Instead of trying to silence critics, authorities should be fixing the laws adopted during more repressive times that criminalize criticism of institutions or public figures.”
According to a HRW press release, trying civilians Khiari and Arfaoui in a military tribunal violates the norm of international laws that generally preclude military courts from having any authority over civilians. Moreover, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Principles and Guidelines on the right to fair trial and legal assistance in Africa state that military courts should not “in any circumstances whatsoever have jurisdiction over civilians.”
HRW also cite article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a party, which confirms that prosecutions for defaming the army or other state institutions are incompatible with Tunisia’s obligations under the agreement.
In March 2015, a military tribunal sentenced blogger, Yassine Ayari to six months imprisonment, of which he served four, for insulting the army following a series of critical posts on his Facebook page;