Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring movement last year, is being criticized for arresting and charging two sculptors for creating works of art that authorities deem harmful to the public.
If convicted, the two sculptors, Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama, could be imprisoned for as long as five years for their works that were publicly displayed in the coastal town of La Marsa in June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Jelassi’s work is of a veiled woman surrounded by stones evoking the scene of a stoning. Ben Slama’s work is of a child with ants streaming from its schoolbag that spells out the word “Allah.”
Their works drew public outcry. Toward the end of the exhibition, two people and a court official told the owner of the hall where the exhibition was held to remove two pieces of art. There was also a campaign started on Facebook to remove the pieces, the organization said.
The night the exhibition ended, several works of art that had been exhibited in La Marsa were damaged by protesters before police sent them away. What followed were riots across the country over the art show, with protesters setting police stations, courts, and other buildings on fire, leaving one person dead.
Jelassi, one of the sculptors, told HRW, “I felt like I was in the times of the Inquisition.” Jelassi is a senior lecturer and fine arts department head at the Institute of Fine Arts in Tunis.
There is a Facebook campaign, joined by hundreds of artists in Tunisia and overseas, calling for the release of Jelassi. Ben Slama is in France, according to news website Tunisialive.
During a court date last week, Jelassi says she was subject to an anthropometric test, along with other accused criminals. She ridiculed the test on her Facebook page by posting a self-portrait with a ruler held up to her face.
Even if the artworks offended people, HRW said that the prosecution of the sculptors violates their right to freedom of expression because they did not incite violence or constitute discrimination.
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