The “Atheists” Affair in Mahdia, Tunisia

News article, posted 04.17.2012, from Tunisia, in:
Author: 
Henda Hendoud and Olfa Riahi
Language: 
French
The “Atheists” Affair in Mahdia, Tunisia

Summay: According to bloggers Henda Hendoud and Olfa Riahi, two citizens of Mahdia pressed charges against two young locals, Ghazi Al Beji and Jabeur Mejri, whom they accused of “public order offenses,” “moral trangressions,” and “harming a third party.” On March 28, 2012, they were sentenced to 7 and a half years in prison, along with a 1200 (785 USD) dinar fine.

According to Hendoud and Riahi, “the young men, already known in Mahdia for their atheism, had already published several works criticizing Islam.” They note that Al Beji’s book, “The Illusion of Islam,” is “a satirical novel that recounts in part the life of the prophet Muhammad and his wife Aicha (with caricatures).” As for Mejri, Hendoud and Riahi note that he is known for “his multiple books […] published on his Facebook page and on other social networking sites.” The titles include, “The Jewish and Christian Bible,” along with “Sexuality,” and “Dark Lands.”

According to Hendoud and Riahi, lawyers refused to represent Mejri and Al Beji, leading to Al Beji’s fleeing the country. Mejri, for his part, appeared immediately in front of the court, while  Al Beji allegedly fled by moving through Libya, Algeria, and finally Turkey, from where he reached Greece, where he remains with no passport nor funds. Hendoud and Riahi write that, “in contacting him by telephone, Ghazi Al Beji did not deny his atheism, adding that he was in contact with Mejri, who had read his book ‘The Illusion of Islam,’ and that he regretted nothing despite the death threats, the judgment in the first court [de première instance], and his current mess [galere].”

Hendoud and Riahi note that the affair of the “Mahdia Atheists” remains generally unknown to the public, although, in addition to a number of bloggers, the popular radio station Chems FM has spoken of the affair several times. The “League of Tunisian Humanists,” along with “Journalists Without Borders” and some independent activists have also “bothered to bring up the affair,” as Hendoud and Riahi put it.

Meeting with Al Beji’s Father

Riahi and Hendoud describe their meeting with the father of Al Beji, who tells them the following:

“My son is an unemployed university graduate, who did not hurt anyone. Is he more dangerous than those who killed innocents during the revolution? Is he more dangerous than the Trabelsis, the Ben Alis, the snipers? If my son or Jabeur [Mejri] had work, and earned well, they never would have gotten involved in this type of affair. And then, they are free to think what they want… what is the problem if they are not believers?”

Interview with Sheikh Zouali

Hendoud and Riahi also interview a Mahdia lawyer familiar with the case, Foued Cheikh al Zouali. Al Zouali told Hendoud and Riahi that though the suit was filed initially against Mejri, “the investigation led to the name of Ghazi al Beji who admitted being his accomplice in atheism.” According to Riahi and Hendoud, Al Zouali told them that he considered this crime worse than murder, adding, “I hope that the new constitution will harden the punishment [alourdir la peine] for this type of crime to protect religion and the Muslim sensibilities of Tunisians.”

Hendoud and Riahi asked al Zouali about freedom of expression and religious freedom. Al Zouali replied that “everyone is free but within [the limits of] respect.” Al Zouali told Hendoud and Riahi that he sees no link between the suit against Mejri and Al Beji and freedom of expression. Hendoud and Riahi write that, “After a long discussion, he [al Zouali] finished by saying that it is the law that decided. “What these two young people did is forbidden by the law,” he explained, before describing, as Hendoud and Riahi put it, “the humiliation and the psychological attack that he suffered after having seen Mejri and Al Beji’s caricatures on the internet.”

According to Riahi, the police investigation looked only at Mejri’s and Al Beji’s publications.  According to documents handed over by al Zouali, the police summarize Al Beji’s book, “The illusion of Islam” by the following: “doubt about the existence of God, doubt about the existence of a religion called ‘Islam,’ doubt about the existence of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)  with justifications for the doubt, as insisted on by the author.”

These same public order laws: Ben Ali’s tools for political repression

Hendoud and Riahi describe as “vague” and “hazy” these public order’ laws – specifically articles 121-3 and 226 of the penal code along with article 86 of the telecommunications code. They write that the same laws currently used against Mejri and Al Beji were also used by Ben Ali against political opponents, “and only against [political] opponents.” Hendoud and Riahi declare that “the cases are so numerous to the point that the expression ‘public order offense’ automatically evokes ‘political prisoners.’”

Among those opponents of the Ben Ali regime who suffered prison sentences because of this law, Hendoud and Riahi cite: the famous leftist activist Hamma Hamami, “sentenced July 14, 1999, in abstentia by the correctional tribunal of Tunis, to 9 years and 3 months of prison for public order offenses.” (See: Hamami’s Biography)

The lawyer and activist Mohamed Abou also spent three years in prison following his own public order offense: his publication of an article in 2007 that described the methods of torture of the Ben Ali regime. Abou was sentenced under the same law under which Al Beji and Mejri are being judged.  The well-known militant Ahmed Manai similarly spent half of his life in forced exile for the publishing his book, “Tunisian Torture: the Secret Garden of the General Ben Ali.”

Journalists Taoufik Ben Brik, Zouheir Makhlouf and Fahem Boukadous were also victims of these same public order laws under the regime of Ben Ali.

Salafi Death Threats

Mahmoud Al Beji, the father of Ghazi Al Beji, told Hendoud and Riahi that his son had been receiving death threats from Salafists. “The Sheikh event sent a message to my wife telling her that Jabeur [Mejri] would not escape the punishment of Salafists in prison.”  Hendoud and Riahi write that the Al Beji family is “completely rejected by the entire neighborhood.” Mahmoud Al Beji told them, “I go to the mosque in another far away neighbhorhood and I no longer go to the café. At the tribunal, they warned us not to contact any journalist or human rights association, otherwise the reaction of public opinion would be violent.” Mahmoud Al Beji confirmed that he was considering selling his home.  A video of Mahmoud Al Beji is included on the blog.

Ghazi Al Beji further told Hendoud and Riahi during their telephone interview with him that Jabeur Mejri had been attacked in the street by Salafists. “I am afraid to return to my house,” he told them. “Even in winning the trial, I am in danger… They can kill me and no one will move to protect me.”

Al Beji also alleged that Jabeur Mejri had been tortured at the police station. Hendoud and Riahi list this allegation as “to be verified.”

To verify these threats from Salafists, Hendoud and Riahi write that they contact Sheikh Wannasse, the Imam of one of the most important mosques in Mahdia. According to Sheikh Wannasse, he is not responsible for any threat directed at Mejri or Al Beji. However, he adds, “But we cannot blame Muslims, whose sacred [faith] has been touched [touchés dans leurs sacrés], if they react violently.” The Sheikh explained that he considered the “crime” of the two accused unforgiveable.  A video of the Sheikh is included in Hendoud and Riahi’s blog post.

Today, Hendoud and Riahi write, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have traveled to Mahdia to investigate the affair. Foreign as well as Tunisian Media Outlets, they note, are starting to speak about the case in the hopes of provoking public opinion around an affair that touches the essence of freedom of expression – that the Tunisian people fought to have.

Original Language Text: 

« Cette affaire n’a rien à voir avec la liberté d’expression ou les libertés tout court » c’est ainsi qu’entame Maitre Foued Cheikh Zouali son témoignage concernant l’affaire des athées de Mahdia. Après une enquête et une transcription complète du dossier des accusés, le contraire est prouvé. (Enquête réalisé avec la collaboration avec Olfa Riahi – voir son article sur ce lien)

Procès pour Athéisme ou pour atteinte à l’ordre public ?

L’affaire a commencé, le 3 mars 2012, à la ville côtière de Mahdia, quand deux citoyens ont porté plainte, contre deux jeunes, Ghazi Al Beji et Jabeur Mejri, les accusant d’ « atteinte à l’ordre public », « transgression à la morale » et «apport de préjudice à un tiers » tel que cité dans le jugement du Tribunal de la première instance de Mahdia, jugement prononcé à la date du 28 mars 2011. Les accusés ont écopé 7 ans et six mois de prison et 1200 dinars d’amende.

...

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]