Tunisia jails rapper over lyrics 'insulting' to police

AFP, Sunday 8 Dec 2013

A Tunisian rapper was jailed on Thursday for four months over songs deemed insulting to police, in a retrial that his supporters say proves the authorities are harassing dissident artists.

The ruling comes amid ongoing human rights concerns under Tunisia's Islamist-led coalition government, almost three years after a popular uprising ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben and triggered revolutions across the region.

Weld El 15, whose real name is Alaa Yacoubi, had surrendered to the authorities for the hearing, in a bid to have the 21-month jail sentence he received in absentia in August for songs deemed insulting to police overturned.

The court found him guilty of affront to public decency and insulting behaviour towards public servants in his songs, and ordered him taken straight to the cells to serve his sentence.

"I am going to lodge an immediate appeal," defence lawyer Ghazi Mrabet said.

"I am concerned Weld El 15 may suffer bodily harm in prison."

The hearing took place at a court in the town of Hammamet, east of Tunis, where Weld El 15 and fellow rapper Klay BBJ were originally convicted without even being notified of the trial.

The charges related to songs they performed together at a concert in Hammamet last summer.

Klay BBJ has since been retried twice and was finally acquitted in October, while Weld El 15 had been on the run until Thursday.

Both musicians had previously rejected the charges against them, and four witnesses testified at Thursday's trial to support the defendant's claims.

"The public demanded a controversial song. But I refused, in a gesture of conciliation towards the police, but a large number of police climbed onto the stage and assaulted me," Weld El 15 told the judge at Thursday's hearing.

The prosecution does not make statements during trials in Tunisia, and the incriminating evidence given to the judge was not made public.

Ghazi Mrabet, the rapper's lawyer, described the accusations against his client as "empty," saying they were based on the statements of two policemen.

Weld El 15 already had antagonistic relations with the Tunisian security forces, having been jailed, and then freed on appeal by a court in Tunis, for a controversial song he wrote called "The Police are Dogs".

Mrabet admitted before the trial that he was "not optimistic", as did the rapper himself.

"I'm ready for anything, I hope that Tunisia has a justice system and not an injustice system," Weld El 15 told AFP after turning himself in.
"The revolution took place in the name of freedom of expression," he said.

"I handed myself in because I can't spend my life on the run, but I'm not ready to go back to prison," the rapper added.

Since the Islamist-led government took power after Tunisia's 2011 revolution, trials of musicians and journalists have multiplied, sparking charges from human rights groups that the authorities are stifling freedom of expression.

After Thursday's ruling, supporters of Weld El 15 loudly restated those claims.

"The verdict given today is a deterrent to all artists, it announces the colour (of the authorities), which is the colour of repression, of muzzling and of a new dictatorship," said Thameur Mekki, who heads a support committee for rappers facing trial.

Attempts to reform Tunisia's judiciary and security forces in the three years since Ben Ali's ouster have largely stalled.

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