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Tunisian graffiti artists targeted by law

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Berriche and Bouagila were arrested November 3 for writing on the wall of a university: “the people want rights for the poor” and “the poor are the living-dead in Tunisia.”

Sana Ajmi
16 December 2012

Two graffiti artists were arrested last month for drawing graffiti in Tunisia’s South East region of Gabes. The young artists face charges of breaching the state of emergency, writing on public property and publishing messages that disturbed the public order. Supporters have argued that this act puts into question the status of freedom of expression in post-revolution Tunisia.

Chahine Berriche, 22 years old has just finished his studies at the Institute of Arts and Multimedia in Tunis and Oussama Bouagila, 25 years old, is completing his masters.

Berriche and Bouagila were arrested November 3 for writing on the wall of a university: “the people want rights for the poor” and “the poor are the living-dead in Tunisia.” The young artists are members of the activist street-art community ‘Zwelwa’ (the poor in Tunisian dialect) known for its use of graffiti to address social problems of the marginalized people of Tunisia.

The trial of the two students was postponed from December 5 to January 23, 2013. Attorney Bochra Belhaj Hmida said that if convicted, the two artists (who remain free) could face up to five years in prison.

“I can’t believe this is happening in post-revolution Tunisia. If the judge finds them guilty, I believe freedoms in Tunisia will be violated,” said Hmida.

The impoverished region of Gabes was severely marginalized during the former ruling regime. The residents of the region have suffered from a terrible economic situation and harsh living conditions, the same reasons that fueled Tunisia’s revolution two years ago. 

The Zwewla case has quickly circulated on social networks and many people and civil society groups have expressed their support for the young people. Some civil society activists have now launched an online campaign called “Graffiti is not a crime”. The group, which has more than 3,500 fans on Facebook, expressed their support to their members. On twitter, under the hashtag “freezwewla”, a number of activists and artists have called for the charges to be dropped. During the week of the Carthage film festival, a support rally was organized to make people aware of their plight. 

“I’m in solidarity with them,” said Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and head of the anti-torture association.

In fact, the trial of the two students is not the first time that art has been attacked in Tunisia after the revolution. The display “Printemps Des Arts Fair” at the Palais Abdellia in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa, infuriated some ultra-conservative groups who accused the exhibited works of being morally offensive. The exhibition sparked riots last June resulting in the death of a 22 year old man and hundreds of other people injured.  This targeted gallery had several works of art destroyed and an overnight curfew was declared in several Tunisian cities.

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