As thousands of Tunisians around the country took to the streets on Thursday to demand the ouster of the Islamist-led government, a rapper was curtly sentenced to six months in prison amid the country’s growing pains as a new democracy.
Tunisian rapper Klay BBJ was jailed for songs deemed insulting by the authorities. The verdict, which his supporters slammed as a sign of the government's growing intolerance, was delivered after a 90-minute trial.
Klay BBJ, whose real name is Ahmed Ben Ahmed, said during the hearing that he was being tried for criticizing the government, led by the Ennahda party, which is frequently accused of trying to stifle the freedom of expression Tunisians fought for in the 2011 revolution.
"Our songs criticize the current situation in Tunisia and the government, no more and no less. I am among the rappers most critical of the government and that is why (the authorities) are after me," he told the judge.
His lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, said he would appeal the verdict.
"It is a new injustice targeting artists. I will appeal and continue the fight," Mrabet told AFP.
Klay BBJ was on trial for defamation, insulting officials and undermining public morals in songs he sang alongside fellow rapper Weld El 15 at a concert last month in the eastern town of Hammamet, where Thursday's trial took place.
The two men were given 21-month jail terms in absentia at the end of August, without being summoned to court or even informed of the trial.
While Klay BBJ decided to contest the earlier ruling, Weld El 15, who has been on the run since his conviction, has alleged judicial harassment and said he does not plan to appeal.
Weld El 15, whose real name is Ala Yaacoubi, was jailed in June for a controversial song he wrote called "The Police are Dogs.” The song targeted alleged police brutality in Tunisia.
Increasingly, artists like the two rappers are paying a high price for picking fights with the authorities.
Arezki Daoud, editor of The North Africa Journal, said two powerful currents – conservatives who by and large support Ennahda and their liberal opposition – are clashing in a nation that is still redefining itself after ousting the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
With so much uncertainty over how Tunisia will be governed, the nation is in flux.
“There is no clear constitution, no blueprint for the laws that the country is going to adopt, that’s why you see so much fighting and feuds,” Daoud said. “And that’s translated to the jailing of artists and musicians,” who often vocalize the opposition perspective.
Daoud said it is important to note that Ennahda was democratically elected less than two years ago, and that many people still support the Islamist-led ruling coalition. That means a prolonged political battle between Tunisia's conservatives and liberals is likely in store.
Supporters of Klay BBJ condemned Thursday's ruling, saying it was proof that the authorities were determined to suppress freedom of expression.
"This is just a political trial. It's a scandal to put an artist in prison for his songs. It's another step towards the establishment of a new dictatorship in this country," said Thameur Mekki, who runs a support group for musicians pursued by the authorities.
"They want to humiliate us one by one, to crush all our hopes. I fear for our country," said Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui, another Tunisian rapper, visibly emotional after Thursday's ruling.
Rights groups say the draconian penal code inherited from the regime of Ben Ali, which is still in force, is used extensively to stifle criticism.
The assassinations of two high-profile opposition leaders in six months incurred violent, widespread outrage and calls for the government's resignation in July, and recent trials of musicians and journalists have sparked a second wave of criticism directed primarily at the police and judiciary.
Tunisia is not the only country in the Arab world to witness a crackdown on free speech and individual rights by conservative rulers. But Arezki Daoud pointed said Tunisian activism is exceptional, and that has made the North African nation a flashpoint for post-Arab Spring tensions.
“The thing about Tunisia is that there is a very vibrant liberal wing of people who are pro-free speech, pro-women’s rights, that are fighting back, and that’s adding to the tension,” he said.
Michael Pizzi contributed to this report, with wire services