Remember Pussy Riot? Of course you do. They’re the world’s most famous dissident musicians and their visit to Yoko Ono’s Meltdown last week inspired a fresh wave of well-deserved coverage, including this excellent piece by Laurie Penny. While they remain in the news so do other injustices in Russia such as the Bolotnaya Square case.
So why haven’t we heard much about Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, who has been jailed not for an act of physical protest but for a mere song? I only came across the case today, 11 days after his sentencing, thanks to the Care2 petition site and when I searched for his name I found surprisingly little coverage beyond the BBC and Human Rights Watch. In the Guardian, the original in-absentia sentence received just a fleeting mention in this April column by Mona Eltahawy. To my knowledge, no high-profile musician has yet spoken out in his defence.
Weld El 15 (also spelled Oueld El 15), aka Ala Yaakoubi, was jailed for two years for “insulting the police” in his song Boulicia Kleb (Cops Are Dogs) and its music video, which depicts police brutality — the maximum sentence, under Article 128 of the penal code, for defaming public officials. Initially sentenced in March while on the run, he was retried and imprisoned after turning himself in to the police in the hope of a more lenient sentence. This came only a day after a four-month sentence for members of the feminist group Femen, which was also harsher than expected. A journalist and two rappers are currently awaiting trial for allegedly assaulting and abusing police in clashes after Weld El 15’s re-trial
Tunisia appeared to be the Arab Spring’s only success story after the removal of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago, but under the new regime there has been a protracted crackdown on freedom of speech, driven both by the old institutions and a new wave of ultra-conservative Islamists. Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk’s expression of support for Weld El 15 suggests that there is a battle over freedom of speech within the government itself, but the censors have scored a number of victories. From the Human Rights Watch story:
Since early 2012, there have been numerous cases against journalists, bloggers, artists, and intellectuals for peaceful expression. In September, for example, a public prosecutor brought charges against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and good morals. On March 28, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Mahdia sentenced two bloggers to prison terms of seven-and-a-half years, confirmed on appeal, for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. On May 3, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Tunis fined Nabil Karoui, the owner of the television station Nessma TV, 2,300 dinars (US$1,490) for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis,” denounced as blasphemous by some Islamists.
Before his re-trial, Weld El 15 said: “In the song, I used the same terms that the police used to speak about the youth. The police have to respect citizens if they want to be respected.” It reminded me of Cop Killer by Ice-T’s rock band Body Count. In 1992 opposition from police and politicians led to the song being deleted from the album and brought to a close hip hop’s most politically outspoken era. But nobody went to jail over Cop Killer, while a very similar song has landed Weld El 15 in prison.
You could argue that Pussy Riot’s international celebrity has done nothing to sway the Russian government and courts, but at least their plight, and that of fellow protesters in Russia, continues to be widely reported. Weld El 15’s case is even more outrageous and disturbing yet has inspired little outcry outside Tunisia. If we care about one group of musicians disproportionately punished for criticising a regime then we should extend that concern to all of them. Signing Care2’s petition to free Weld El 15 would be a start.