The prosecution of Tunisian blogger and parliament elect Yassine Ayari in a military court for his posts on Facebook is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression and the right to fair trial, said Amnesty International.
On 4 January, a military prosecutor charged Ayari with “undermining the morale of the army” for a Facebook post published on 27 February 2017, in which he mocked the appointment of a senior military commander. The first hearing of the trial took place at a military court without his knowledge and was adjourned to March 2018.
“It is unacceptable that despite important reforms following Tunisia’s Revolution seven years ago, people are still facing such spurious charges for a Facebook post and are denied their right to freedom of expression.” said Heba Morayef Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
“The fact that Yassine Ayari will face trial before a military court is even more shocking. Trying civilians before a military tribunal is contrary to international human rights law and a violation of the right to a fair trial”
Yassine Ayari is a Tunisian activist and blogger who was elected to the parliament in December 2017 as a representative of Tunisians resident in Germany.
In his Facebook post, Ayari mocked the appointment by President Beji Caid Sebssi of Ismail Fatahali as Chief of Land Army, describing him as “sensitive” after reporting a quote where he allegedly said in a trial in 2014 that a “Facebook post had ruined his moral”.
Seifeddine Makhlouf, one of Ayari’s lawyers, told Amnesty International that defence lawyers were not given access to all court documents concerning the prosecution of Ayari, despite repeated requests. Furthermore, the military court did not notify the defendant at his correct address and as a result did not know the trial was taking place.
Yassine Ayari told Amnesty International that when his lawyers went to the military court, they found out that two additional complaints were filed against him almost simultaneously. He told Amnesty International, that “until this moment, my lawyers and I still don’t know what these charges are. We have absolutely no information, despite the fact that my lawyers went several times to the military court insisting they should be given access to the documents that concern me”.
Ayari had already faced trial and imprisonment in relation to previous critical posts online. In November 2014, a military court convicted Ayari, in absentia, to three years imprisonment for “defamation of the army” because he had criticized Defence Minister Ghazi Jerbi, as well as other specific appointments in the military command on Facebook. In January 2015, a military court had reduced the sentence to one year imprisonment. He was released after six months in jail.
The prosecution of persons for “defaming the army” or other state institutions is incompatible with Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law and contravene the right to freedom of expression under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“If the Tunisian authorities are truly committed as they claim to the respect and protection of human rights, legislators should immediately repeal the laws that provide special protection against criticism to public officials and criminalize defamation of state institutions. Defamation, whether of public figures or private individuals, should be treated as a matter of civil litigation”.
International human rights law is clear that civilians should never be prosecuted before military courts. Although Tunisia’s Code of Military Justice was reformed in July 2011, it did not limit the jurisdiction of military courts to offences of a purely military nature committed by military personnel.
“Tunisian authorities should immediately drop the charges brought against Yassine Ayari”, said Heba Morayef. “The Tunisian parliament should make it a priority to repeal laws that unduly restrict freedom of expression and harmonize the Tunisian legal framework with international norms and standards by explicitly limiting the military court’s jurisdiction only to breaches of military discipline committed by military personnel”.
Since 2011, at least 10 civilians have been tried before military courts in cases related to the free expression of opinions, usually for criticizing the army or state officials. In September 2016, a military prosecutor charged Jamel Arfaoui, an independent journalist, for undermining the reputation of the army in an article he wrote on a news website. In November 2014, Sahbi Jouini, a police union leader, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison for defaming the army, after he accused the army of failing to use information adequately to combat terrorism. In May 2013, blogger Hakim Ghanmi was tried before a military court for “undermining the reputation of the army” after he complained about the director of a military hospital.
Published on Amnesty International on January 15, 2018