Anti-Blasphemy Law Introduced In Tunisia

Steve Inskeep talks to Tunisian journalist Asma Ghribi about threats to personal freedoms and human rights under the Islamist-led government. Amnesty International released a report after a journalist critical of the government was arrested on "public morals" charges for drinking on a beach.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A small incident in Tunisia hints at some of the larger strains in the revolutions we call the Arab Spring. Police arrested an activist and journalist named Sofiene Chourabi. He was a prominent figure in Tunisia's uprising against a longtime ruler. But he differed with the new government that came to power, which is dominated by an Islamist party. Chourabi found himself under arrest after he criticized a proposed blasphemy law that he saw as a restriction of free speech. We talked about this with Tunisian journalist Asma Ghribi.

So this blasphemy law has been proposed. This activist and blogger wrote against it, and then the police came for him. What exactly was he doing, as best you can determine, when the police came after him?

ASMA GHRIBI: Yeah. He was camping on a beach at 5:00 AM He was sleeping, actually. So the version of the police, they said that they received a phone call from someone saying that a bunch of people are drinking alcohol and are making noises on the beach. So the policemen, they went there, but when they reached the spot they found him sleeping under a stand.

So they entered the stand and they searched it and they found the alcoholic drinks so they arrested them and they took them to the police office.

INSKEEP: We should clarify for people. I mean, there are bars in Tunisia. You can buy alcohol legally in Tunisia. What was the law that he supposedly broke here?

GHRIBI: There is no law. He didn't commit any crime. But still got arrested.

INSKEEP: What do the police say?

GHRIBI: The police say that he was drinking alcohol on Ramadan, and there is no law, as well, against drinking alcohol on Ramadan. The only known existing Tunisian criminal code is that people are not allowed to drink in public.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to figure out who the police are. Are these the same police who were left over from the era of the dictator, Ben Ali, who was overthrown?

GHRIBI: Oh, of course. Yeah. Of course. Yeah. They are, for example, now the governments are talking about the procedures of four men-the minister of the interior and of the home and security (unintelligible) but it's not the case. You know, it's like it's a whole process and it will take time. But now, for the time being, we're having the same leftovers from the previous regime.

INSKEEP: Is this getting to be a normal thing, that someone who speaks against the government would find himself facing morals charges of this sort?

GHRIBI: No. I cannot really say that those happened before, like, for example, our police arresting is increasing and many other activists are suffering from the same practices.

INSKEEP: So is the suspicion here that the same old police, who once served an authoritarian regime, are now beginning to apply some of the same heavy-handed tactics in the service of this new government?

GHRIBI: Yeah. For example, during the month of Ramadan they're trying now to enforce law existing - like the same ones existed under the previous regime but they were never enforced. But now the policemen, because we're having a self-government and (unintelligible) leading development, so now the policemen are being more and more being firm when it comes to applying fast laws. These, like, morals laws.

INSKEEP: Morals laws during the holy month of Ramadan.

GHRIBI: Yeah, yeah. They're shutting down restaurants and - yeah.

INSKEEP: At least officially for the record, is the Ennadha Party, the dominant party, in favor of freedom of speech except in cases that they say would be blasphemous?

GHRIBI: Yes. Yes. This is actually what they announce all the time. Even, for example, when asked about whether these blasphemy laws were just regarding freedom of expression they will say, no, no. Like freedom of expression is also very important for us but we just, like, we're a Muslim country and we want to preserve the Arab Muslim identity. And we want to protect our sacred values.

INSKEEP: Asma Ghribi is a reporter for Tunisia Live, an English language website in Tunis. Thanks very much.

GHRIBI: Thank you very much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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