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Catch and Release: Tunisia's Hypocritical Justice System

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Apolitical, peaceful, spontaneous: since January 2011, the Tunisian revolution has been called many things. Yet it was first and foremost a revolution of the youth.

From the figure of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring, to the faces of Tunisia's adolescent martyrs dead under Ben Ali's bullets, the country's salvation undoubtedly came from its younger generation.

Yet more than two years later, Tunisia's disgruntled youth is decidedly disconnected from its decision makers. Both domestic and international observers have asked: "Why did you allow older generations to confiscate your revolution?" "Where is Tunisia's revolutionary youth?"

The truth is that the elected leadership is slowly drafting its new constitution in parliament while subjecting its youth to trumped up charges in the courts.

The most recent case is that of Alaa Yaacoubi, a 25 year-old rapper known as Weld el 15. He recently issued a new music video called "The Cops are Bastards" ("Boulicia Kleb"), in which he harshly mocks and insults Tunisia's police. To be fair, Alaa does not write children's' songs: he is a rapper. While rappers are sometimes abrupt in their style, they are nonetheless artists, essential elements in any society.

However, shortly after the song came out, Alaa and all those involved in the making of the music video were arrested. At first, the court sentenced him to two and a half years of prison. Conveniently a day before president François Hollande's visit, it was, however, commuted by the appeal court to a suspended six-month sentence. In the eyes of international public opinion, Alaa was freed. But in Tunisia, he remains guilty and condemned.

The case that is most threatening to Tunisia's democratic transition is that of Jabeur Mejri. Jabeur is a 28-year old living in the coastal town of Mahdia; he happens to be an atheist. There is, in theory, nothing wrong with atheism as Tunisia's constitution-in-the-making guarantees freedom of belief. However, when Jabeur decided to post writings expressing his atheistic views on Facebook, he triggered a public scandal that inevitably led to his arrest. Today, Jabeur is in jail and has seven and a half years to go. It is the longest most severe sentence in the short history of post-revolutionary Tunisia. It also became a symbol, as Ghazi Beji, Jabeur's friend who shared the same material online became Tunisia's first political exile.

Jabeur's support committee sent a presidential pardon application to president Marzouki and cannot but hope that he will be freed. Yet a presidential pardon does not mean that Jabeur is innocent. On the contrary, it confirms the legitimacy of his sentence.

Lastly, the case of Amina Sboui is the most publicized. Amina is an 18-year-old girl who posted topless pictures of herself with the cry "This body is mine, it is nobody's honor" written upon her breast. The media lynching that followed was unparalleled. Young Amina became the epitome of immorality and dishonor for Tunisia's vox populi. Days later, she was arrested for trumped up charges - a graffiti tag in Qayrawan, Tunisia- and currently awaits her trial.

While the graffiti trial is still ongoing, Amina seems to have been already sentenced for her topless pictures. If not by the judges, at least by public opinion she was found guilty. She is, after all, currently waiting in jail, as she wasn't even granted parole.

Most certainly, Amina is not going to be found innocent. The real issue at stake is that of the sentence.

Again, Amina's defense will have to contend with an absurd justice system. What intricate solution can she possibly craft? Presidential pardon? Appeal? Or is Amina going to be the one paying for every case that was cowardly handled by the court thus far?

One thing is certain, without continuous support from the international community, Amina's case is close to hopeless. While Tunisia's activists are prepared to criticize its Islamist-led government for any human rights violations, they are unwilling to defend freedom of speech.

Even the ATFD, the main feminist organization in Tunisia, offered muted support for Amina, conveying the impression of a decrepit organization, overwhelmed by the case of a young girl.

These cases say a lot about Tunisia's post-revolutionary climate.

First, one cannot help but notice a pattern. Each case deals with a young Tunisian accused of threatening the public order by acting immorally. By accusing the youth of immorality for merely expressing their views, the Tunisian justice system seems suddenly to have slipped back into old habits. How little things change.

More surprisingly though, public support for the youth is anything but strong and systematic. While civil society vocally calls for Alaa's release in the name of freedom of speech, support for Jabeur and Amina is relatively scarce. In Tunisia, there are topics more worthy of freedom of speech than others - or so it seems. Atheism and women's' rights to their bodies apparently don't fall into that category. Tunisia's democratic struggle ought to enjoy uniform, principles. Only support based on universal rights will bring about real freedom of speech.

Lastly, these cases illustrate the cowardliness of the Tunisian justice system. Law is influenced by both politics and public opinion rather than impartial rules that govern the entire nation. Sadly, the most efficient defense remains taking to the streets, as was the case under Ben Ali's regime. Light but hypocritical sentences are being pronounced: suspended sentences, fines, followed presidential pardons. Tunisia's democratic facade is seemingly intact with every official promoting the merits of the new constitution. The same held true under Ben Ali's 23-year-old dictatorship. Young Tunisians are still being condemned; only their sentences differ.