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Rights group blasts 'repressive' crackdown in Tunisia, birthplace of Arab Spring

An international rights group called Monday for Tunisian prosecutors to drop charges against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and good morals, a legal action seen as part of a clampdown on free speech in the country where the Arab Spring began.

Human Rights Watch said that the prosecution of artists Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Salem in Tunisia, the country whose protests against its longtime dictator helped set off similar uprisings across the Arab world, violated the right to freedom of expression because the works did not incite or discriminate.


"Time and again, prosecutors are using criminal legislation to stifle critical or artistic expression," Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Bloggers, journalists and now artists are being prosecuted for exercising their right to free speech," he added.

Protests
The works by Jelassi and Ben Salem were exhibited in a show in La Marsa in June, according to Human Rights Watch. The two, whose mixed-media work provoked protests during the exhibition, face up to five years in prison if convicted, the rights group said.

La Marsa is a coastal town north of the capital Tunis.

Jelassi's contribution was a work titled "Celui qui n'a pas …" ("He who hasn't …"). It includes sculptures of veiled women amid a pile of stones. Ben Salem’s work showed ants coming out of a child's schoolbag to spell the word "Allah," or God, according to Human Rights Watch.

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In addition to protests outside the center, several works of art in the exhibition reportedly were damaged.

The two artists were informed by the investigative judge of the First Degree Court of Tunis in August that they face charges, Human Rights Watch said.

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The article of the penal code under which the two artists were charged make it an offense to "distribute, offer for sale, publicly display, or possess, with the intent to distribute, sell, display for the purpose of propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers, whether of foreign origin or not, that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals," according to Human Rights Watch.

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"Many Tunisians expected that repressive laws ... would not long outlast the dictator who adopted [them]," Goldstein of Human Rights Watch said.

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"We now see that as long as the transitional government does not make it a priority to get rid of these laws, the temptation to use them to silence those who dissent or think differently is irresistible," he added.

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Clampdown on freedom of expression
Amnesty International has also contended that freedom of expression has increasingly been under threat in Tunisia in recent months. A number of journalists, cinemas and TV stations have been fined, shut down or arrested, according to Amnesty.

Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Click for more photos from the 2011 demonstrations against the Tunisian government.

The Arab Spring is widely considered to have begun in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, where a fruit seller's self-immolation triggered the popular uprisings against autocratic rule there and other countries in the region.

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The Tunisian uprising forced out dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Elections that followed brought to power Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that had been banned under Ben Ali’s rule.

NBC News' staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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