In May 2012 we posted the story of Tunisian bloggers Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji. At the time Jabeur had just been sentenced to a prison term of seven years for insulting Islam as a result of materials, including a cartoon, he posted to his blog about the prophet Mohammed, and other comments about the religion. Mr. Mejri and Mr. Beji had also declared themselves to be atheists.
In Mr. Beji’s case, rather than being charged with insulting Islam, he was accused and convicted of imagined crimes against his employers, and given the same seven year sentence. Beji fled the country as his only alternative to prison, nearly losing his life on several occasions. Over the next six months he landed in and out of jails and struggled through refugee camps all through Eastern Europe, eventually arriving at a safe house in Paris, France, thanks to the help of dozens of well-wishers and supporters.
During this time, disturbing reports began surfacing about the treatment of Jabeur Mejri at the Tunisian prison where where he was incarcerated. As a declared atheist, he came under the worst and most sadistic treatment of other inmates, many of whom were in prison for being members of militant Islamic organizations.
Unconfirmed reports also said that he was near death due to infections and parasites,
and close to a mental breakdown from the the abuse of his fellow inmates. Appeals by his family for proper medical treatment and psychological support were ignored.
Jabeur’s story soon became symbolic of the larger tug-of-war taking place in Tunisia, between those pushing for a secular and democratic future for the country and those wanting to impose shariah law and fundamentalist religious rule. While the Tunisian government struggled to maintain its best secular democratic face, the heavy covert hand of more aggressive Islamists could also be clearly seen, with several highly publicized political assassinations of more moderate secular leaders.
Freedom of expression and tolerance of religious diversity became a touchstone for this struggle, including a grassroots movement calling for Jabeur’s immediate release. Street demonstrations advocating a free society regularly featured “Free Jabeur” placards and posters, with his case gaining the attention of the international human rights community. It also became a test case of the new Prime Minister’s willingness and ability to negotiate the path forward to a free press and peaceful political dissent for the people of Tunisia.
Throughout, Cartoonists Rights Network International has worked behind the scenes alongside other organizations like Amnesty International to help strengthen the Prime Minister’s resolve. One result has been several recent public statements by the Prime Minister about his willingness to release Jabeur, while at the same time stating that he cannot safely release him because of fear that Jabeur would be assassinated by militant Islamists.
The international community must now step up and support the Prime Minister in committing to release Jabeur, and to assist him with plans to keep Jabeur safe upon his release. CRNI has already done so, with an offer to help provide Jabeur with safe haven in a friendly country immediately upon his release.
We call upon all of our friends in the cartooning and free speech communities to send letters and emails of support to the Prime Minister to move forward with Jabeur’s immediate pardon and safe release. These letters will have the greatest impact if you also cc the Tunisian Ambassadors in the US and Canada.
We also ask that you take the time to send a letter directly to Jabeur in prison, so that he will know that he is not forgotten in his struggle, and that people around the world care about his fate are working for his freedom
Addresses for your letters and emails of support are below,
To contact Jabeur:
Mr. Jabeur Mejri
Prison civile de Mahdia
Route de Chiba 5100
To contact the Tunisian Prime Minister and Ambassadors:
Pres. Moncef Marzouki
His Excellency Riadh Essid
Ambassador for Tunisia
515 O’Connor Street
Ottawa, ON, K1S 3P8
His Excellency Mohammad Ezzine Zhelaifa
Ambassador for Tunisia
1515 Mass. Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005