Amnesty International has warned the Tunisian authorities against mounting attacks against freedom of expression in the name of defending morality and religion and called for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience after three young men were sentenced to prison terms for insulting Islam and Muslims.

On 11 April 2012 a court in the southern city of Medenine sentenced 25-year-old Ramzi Abcha to four years’ imprisonment for “attacking mosques” and “assaulting religious rituals” by desecrating the Koran in a number of mosques in the town of Ben Gardane in the south east of Tunisia. He continues to be held in the Civil Prison of Harboub in the south, awaiting a date for the appeal filed by his lawyer.

Ramzi Abcha was featured in a video saying he threw the Koran in the ablution area in mosques in Ben Gardane and that he did so because of his anger against Islam, saying that he is secular and gay and wanted to be able to marry a man.

His family and lawyer have said that Ramzi is mentally unstable and has been receiving psychiatric treatment. While Ramzi Abcha’s actions have been deemed offensive by many, these actions and the declared motives behind them remain part of Ramzi’s right to the peaceful expression of his views. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

In a separate case, a court in Mahdia sentenced Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri on 28 March to seven years in prison after they published on the web and on Facebook drawings of the prophet Mohamed and other writings which the court deemed insulting to Islam and Muslims.

The two men were convicted on charges of publishing material liable to cause harm to public order or good morals, for harming others through these publications and for assaulting public morals.

They were sentenced under articles 226 and 121(3) of the Penal Code and Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code which criminalises the use of telecommunications networks to intentionally harm others or disturb their peace. Jabeur Mejri, who was arrested on 5 March, is held in Mahdia Prison while Ghazi Beji was tried in absentia and is currently abroad.

Amnesty International considers all individuals convicted solely for their peacefully held views to be prisoners of conscience and urges the Tunisian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them and drop the charges against those standing trial.

The organisation said that these cases, as well as separate recent convictions for “harming public order and good morals” pointed to a worrying trend of people being tried for simply peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

Article 121 of the Penal Code has been used repeatedly in the last few months, bypassing a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011. It criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals and provides for a punishment of between six months and five years’ imprisonment and a fine ranging from 120 to 1200 Tunisian Dinar (US$80-800).

While protecting public morals or public order may sometimes be a legitimate reason for restricting freedom of expression, any such restriction may only be imposed if absolutely necessary, and even then the least restrictive measure possible should be taken. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Tunisia is a state party protects peaceful expression, including of ideas and views on religion which might be considered offensive by some. As stated by the UN Human Rights Committee in its general comment on the right to freedom of expression “All forms of opinion are protected, including opinions of a political, scientific, historic, moral or religious nature”. It added that it “embraces even expression that may be regarded as deeply offensive”.

The authorities have used this article to bring charges against Arabic daily Attounissia journalists for publishing a photograph of a German-Tunisian football player and his girlfriend who appears naked with his hand covering her breasts. The editor of the newspaper was fined 1000 Tunisian Dinars on 8 March.

The same article was previously used against the owner of Nessma TV Channel, Nabil Karoui, for airing in October 2011 a version in Tunisian dialect of the Persepolis, an award-winning animated film about the 1979 Iranian Revolution told from the perspective of a young girl. The film provoked angry reactions and Nabil Karoui is standing trial on charges of “violating sacred values” and “disturbing the public order”, despite obtaining the necessary permission from the authorities to air the film. The trial which reopened again on 19 April saw heavy security presence near the court building. Nabil Karoui’s lawyers called on the court to drop the charges and acquit him arguing that there is no legal basis to try him. A verdict is expected on 3 May.

These recent trials and conviction are a disturbing to see at a time when many are looking to the Tunisian government to set an example by enshrining fundamental rights in the country’s new constitution. The continuing erosion of the right to freedom of expression is totally unacceptable in the new Tunisia, and the Tunisian authorities must bring an end to it.

The recent convictions have taken place against the continuing frustration of many Tunisians with high levels of unemployment and perceived corruption.

Angry protesters clashed with the security forces namely in the Mallaha area of the port city of Rades on 13 April and in the town of Oum Larayes, near Gafsa in the south on 14 April. The security forces are said to have used tear gas to disperse the crowds. Many in the Mallaha area complained that tear gas was thrown into their houses when the security forces came to arrest their sons.

The protests in both towns followed the recruitment results of the Tunisian Stevedoring and Handling Company and the Gafsa Phosphate Company, the main employers in these regions, with unemployed youth claiming they have been denied the right to work due to recruitment irregularities.