Magharebia (Washington DC)

23 January 2013

Tunisia Jails Salafists for Palais Abdellia Attack

Tunis — Tunisia last week sentenced 16 salafists to a one month in prison for violence linked to a controversial 2012 art exhibit at the Palais Abdellia.

The defendants were convicted by a Tunis court of violating the state of emergency, but were acquitted of the more serious charges, which included rebellion, assaulting public officials and attacks on public order by organised gangs, their lawyer Salaheddine Barakati said January 16th.

The June, 2012 art show in the Tunis suburb infuriated salafists, sparking three days of riots and ultimately forcing authorities to declare an overnight curfew in several Tunisian cities. One person was killed and more than a hundred injured in the clashes.

The salafists were protesting what they considered offensive caricatures of the Prophet.

"This verdict is associated with Palais Abdellia, but in reality the direct offenders were not held accountable," Fine Arts Union chief Omar Ghdamsi told Magharebia.

"For example, sentences were issued to some of those who were on their way to sabotage the exhibition, but not those who did in fact commit the acts of violence," he said.

The imams who incited people to kill artists and take revenge on them should also be held accountable, he added.

"Even politicians criticised this exhibition without actually checking its content. It turned out later that it did not contain any work that harms the Prophet or Islam," Ghdamsi said.

The impact on the art scene in Tunisia has been catastrophic, he noted.

"The art sector is suffering from the consequences of this incident. Gallery owners now refuse to display works of art out of fear of violence that could be generated by the salafists," he added.

The sentence was light when compared to what the Palais Abdellia endured, commented journalist Hana Soltani.

"Abdellia suffered vandalism and attacks that affected its centre. The attacks also affected creative and artistic works and opened the door to more aggressions on cultural centres, artists, playwrights and shrines, as they are part of the cultural heritage and civilisation of Tunisia," she told Magharebia.

Soltani added, "The prosecution of those involved in the assault on Abdellia came late. Such a sentence is considered incommensurate with the assault and threat posed by these groups against the country."

"The future has become hazy by virtue of the presence of groups that want to take over the role of the state," Institute of Fine Arts student Wassim Belhedi told Magharebia.

"Under Ben Ali, we were prevented from expressing ourselves - all in the name of security and order," Belhedi added."Now we are silenced in the name of the sacred."

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