x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Trial of Tunisian TV station owner accused of offending Islam postponed

More than 140 lawyers and others filed suit against Nabil Karoui, the owner of Tunis-based Nessma TV, and two of his employees after the station aired a film in October containing a character representing God.

TUNIS // A Tunisian court postponed the trial yesterday of a TV station owner accused of offending Islam in a case that both sides portray as part of a contest for the future of Tunisia society.

More than 140 lawyers and others filed suit against Nabil Karoui, the owner of Tunis-based Nessma TV, and two of his employees after the station aired a film in October containing a character representing God.

The lawsuit has placed Mr Karoui on the front lines of a culture war unleashed last year when the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali brought long-persecuted Islamists into public life.

"The modernist model of society that we defend in the Maghreb is totally contrary to what the Islamists wish to do," he told Morocco's Le Soir-Echos newspaper in an interview published last week.

To supporters, Mr Karoui is now subject to a religiously driven attack on free expression. His opponents accuse him of seeking to outrage Islamic sensibilities.

If convicted, Mr Karoui faces up to three years in prison.

"Nessma is always attacking Islam," said Atef Amri, 28, who joined several dozen men - some wearing the unkempt beards of the conservative Salafi movement - to shout slogans outside Tunis' main courthouse. "That film about Iran is the biggest proof."

In October Nessma showed Persepolis, a cartoon film about the 1979 Iranian revolution, prompting protests that spiralled into clashes between police and stone-throwing youths.

Despite a public apology by Mr Karoui, a mob tried to set fire to his house. An opening trial hearing last November was postponed to yesterday after lawyers traded insults in court.

The film aired just weeks before elections fought partly over religion's role in public life, which ushered in an interim coalition government of secularists and moderate Islamists.

Today, Tunisian society is debating how best to balance new civil liberties with respect for Arab and Muslim heritage.

"I'm all for free speech, as long as it's not exploited to injure other people," said Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, one of the lawyers suing Mr Karoui, struggling to push through a media scrum at the courtroom door.

Controversy has mounted over Mr Karoui's trial, with yesterday's hearing drawing a small but noisy demonstration by conservative Muslims, and dozens of Tunisian and foreign reporters.

It also attracted Tunisian personalities, including Ahmed Brahim, the leader of the leftist Attajdid party, and former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi, who both expressed support for Mr Karoui in remarks cited by Agence France-Presse.

"This is about more than Nessma TV," said Salah Ourimi, one of Mr Karoui's defence lawyers, who linked his client's case to preserving liberties won with Ben Ali's removal. "The only red line should be freedom."

Amnesty International and the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights have called Mr Karoui's trial an attack on freedom of expression and want it thrown out of court.

The hearing yesterday was held in a courtroom packed with lawyers, reporters and researchers from Tunisian and international rights watchdogs, with more clamouring at the door.

Within an hour, the judge postponed the hearing until April 19 after the lawyers suing Mr Karoui asked the court to review the case under Tunisia's new press code and allow time for new lawyers on both sides to prepare their arguments, said Mr Bouchiba.

jthorne@thenational.ae