In a sign of growing tension between secularists and religious zealots in Tunisia, Islamist extremists attacked several journalists in the capital on Monday – right in front of a courthouse. The journalists were going to court to express their solidarity with a TV station on trial for blasphemy. According to our Observer, the police did little to stop the violence.
The director of Nessma TV, a private network broadcast throughout the Maghreb, was in court to face charges of “infringing sacred values”, “infringing morals”, and “disrupting public order”. Complaints were filed following the station’s October broadcast of Persepolis, a Franco-Iranian film that includes a scene featuring God, whose depiction is prohibited in Islam. Though the film had been screened in Tunisian movie theatres without incident, its broadcast on television just a few weeks before elections sparked a huge controversy, even setting off violent protests.
Dozens of extremists had gathered in front of the courthouse during Monday’s hearing, where they chanted “Death to Nessma!”, among other slogans. Several of them attacked one of the station’s presenters, as well as the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Al Maghreb and a university professor.
The trial ended up being postponed for a second time. It is expected to resume mid-April.
Video published on Al Maghreb's Facebook page. At one minute and 20 seconds, a young man hits Zied Krichen, the editor in chief of Al Maghreb, then hits Hamadi Redessi, a political science professor.
“The men started screaming ‘infidel’ and ‘atheist’… then they hit him”
Ahmed Kaâniche is a human rights activist in Tunisia.
I wanted to attend the trial, but because I was carrying a camera, I wasn’t allowed inside. I stayed outside, where about a hundred people gathered in front of the courthouse: there were journalists and people who had come to express their support for Nessma TV, as well as salafists who were there to protest against the station.The first person to get attacked was Abdelhalim Massoudi, one of Nessma TV’s presenters. The men started screaming “infidel” and “atheist” at him, among other insults. About a dozen men closed in on him from all sides. I saw one man hit him in the leg. At that point, several people, myself included, intervened. We grabbed Massoudi and steered him toward the nearest café to get him to safety. He quickly headed home to avoid a lynching.“I felt so helpless”I then went back to the courthouse. Suddenly people started yelling “Krichen! Krichen!” They had spotted Zied Krichen, the editor of Al Maghreb newspaper, who had come to attend the trial. They yelled at him: “Infidel! Get out! Death to Krichen!” Hamadi Redessi, a political science professor [who also writes for Krichen’s newspaper], was right by his side. He’s about half as big as Krichen, but he still wanted to protect him.Krichen was attacked first, from behind; Redessi then tried to grab the attacker, but in return received a very violent head-butt, which clearly destabilised him. This really shocked me. I felt so helpless – I tried to grab one of these men by the collar, but he didn’t even look at me. These men had only one thing in mind – getting to Krichen and his friend.“The police stayed discreet – too discreet”Krichen and Redessi headed to the nearest police station, which was less than 100 metres away. What’s shocking is that the police did not intervene earlier – at one point, three policemen began walking by their side to shield them, but they were not at all successful. They could have yelled, or showed their batons or their tear gas canisters – but no, they stayed discreet, too discreet.Once Krichen and Redessi found refuge in the police station, a man with a megaphone ordered the others: “OK, guys, it’s over, let’s go back to the courthouse.” It was all very organised.Salafists don’t like the newspaper Al Maghreb, not only because it’s viewed as critical of those in power, but also because last month, they published an investigation into Sejnane, a city north of Tunis where salafists had tried to grab power. Thanks to this report, the police intervened, and arrested several of their leaders.”