Reporters Without Borders condemns the eight-month jail sentence that a Tunis court has imposed on 69-year-old academic and human rights activist Khedija Arfaoui for posting a message on the social networking website Facebook in May referring to widespread rumours about children being kidnapped in Tunisia for their organs.
She was convicted on 4 July of “disturbing public order” under article 121 of the criminal code, which states that “anyone stirring up rebellion by means of speeches in public places or meetings, or placards, posters or written texts is punishable as if they had participated in the rebellion.”
“This conviction has no legal basis,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Tunisia has no Internet laws and this is the first time a Tunisian court has issued a decision concerning a Facebook post. All Arfaoui did was post an already-existing message. She was in no way responsible for starting the rumour. The authorities are just using her as a scapegoat. Her conviction must be quashed immediately.”
Arfaoui had no idea she had been charged until she read in the newspapers on 31 May that her trial was due to begin on 6 June, and she got no formal notification until 5 June. She was represented by lawyers at a second hearing, held on 27 June, but they were not allowed to see the prosecution case file. She and her lawyers did not know that a verdict and sentence had been issued until they read it in the newspapers on 5 July.
One of her lawyers said: “This case cannot be prosecuted because it is not covered by any law. If there is no law, there can be no crime. This conviction is senseless. The trail was staged in order to put a stop to the rumour.”
Under article 121 of the Tunisian criminal code, disturbing public order is punishable by six months to five years in prison and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dinars (72 to 720 euros). It forbids the distribution, sale or display, or possession with a view to distribution, sale or display, of leaflets, newsletters or stickers of foreign or national origin liable to disturb public order or decency.
Article 21 applies to public spaces whereas Facebook is regarded as a private space. The indictment itself violates the confidentiality of correspondence. This is guaranteed by article 9 of the constitution, which says: “Domestic inviolability, the confidentiality of correspondence and the protection of personal data are guaranteed, except in particular cases specified in the law.”
Facebook is very popular with Tunisians aged between 15 and 25. Access was blocked on 24 August 2008 but the ensuing outcry forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to restore access nine days later.
Arfaoui’s lawyers will try to get the jail sentence suspended on appeal. No date has so far been set for the appeal hearing. Arfaoui teaches English, American civilisation and human rights at La Manouba University, near Tunis.