Rapper acquitted in Tunisia free speech case

Posted by Hannah Allam on October 21, 2013 

An appeals court overturned the conviction of Tunisian rapper Klay BBJ, who lashed out against police heavy handedness in his lyrics at a summer music festival, and now human rights activists are pushing for the abolition of laws that criminalize defamation and "insulting" state officials and institutions, Human Rights Watch said today.

Activists are hoping to turn the rapper's case into a landmark challenge to laws limiting free speech in a country where a tug-of-war is going on between revolutionaries pushing for greater civil liberties and forces that want to preserve authoritarian aspects of the ancien regime.

Tunisia is known as the birthplace of the Arab Spring protest movement, the mass uprisings that began in 2011 and whose convulsions continue today for Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and, of course, Syria. While Tunisia is generally considered the smoothest so far of the transitions from authoritarian rule, the North African nation is still plagued by religious, ideological and other divisions that hinder a full transition to democratic rule.

Here's some more background on Klay BBJ's case, via Human Rights Watch:

The charges against Ahmed Ben Ahmed, who is known as Klay BBJ, and another rapper, Alaa Eddine Yaakoubi, better known as Weld El 15 (“The 15-Year-Old Boy” in Tunisian Arabic), stem from their performance on August 22 at the International Festival of Hammamet, which included songs critical of the police and of the authorities. Shortly after the performance, police assaulted the two rappers, arrested them, and held them for several hours, and then released them pending an investigation. The district court of Hammamet convicted them a week later on charges of “insulting the police,” defamation of public officials, and harming public morals, under articles 125, 226 bis, and 247 of the penal code.

The court had failed to notify the two of their trial in advance and convicted them in absentia, Ghazi Merabet, a lawyer for the rappers, told Human Rights Watch. On September 18, Klay BBJ exercised his right to have a new trial with him in the courtroom. At that trial, on September 26, the same tribunal sentenced him to six months in prison on the same charges. He spent three weeks in prison before his October 17 release.


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