Freed blogger Yassine Ayari: Tunisia's revolution has failed

Freed blogger Yassine Ayari: Tunisia's revolution has failed
5 min read
07 May, 2015
Conor Sheils gets an exclusive interview with the Tunisian online activist recently released from prison after being accused of defaming the army on social media.

April 2015: Yassine Ayari after being released from prison [AFP]

Yassine Ayari looks full of confidence as he sits down in a cafe in a plush northern suburb of Tunis.

The 33-year-old activist blogger appears at ease, despite his released from Tunisia's notorious prison system ten days earlier. He was dragged through a military court and jailed for three months as part of the Tunisian state's attempts to silence him.

Rather than achieving their goal, Ayari claims the Tunisian authorities have emboldened his revolutionary spirit and he is no longer afraid.

"They put me in jail to frighten me and stop me speaking out, but now I have been to prison and I know what it is," he says.

"Similar attempts were made to silence me under Ben Ali. I was also arrested in 2007 and 2008.

"In 2009, I was kidnapped from the street and in 2010 I was given the choice of either leaving the country or going to prison.

"They wanted to frighten me, but because I am not afraid - so now they should be.

     I am determined to show them this is not the way to silence people.
- Yassine Ayari

"I have more courage now than before I was sent to prison. I am determined to show them this is not the way to silence people."

Tunisia's regime, led by former Ben Ali minister Beji Caid Essebsi had just been sworn in when Ayari was jailed in January.

The outspoken activist was arrested at Tunis airport when he arrived in Tunisia on December 24, 2014, from France, where he had been living in exile since 2010.

He was sentenced to three years jail time in absentia in November 2014 under section 91 of the country's military justice code for defaming the military in a series of Facebook posts.

The comments criticised the defence minister, Ghazi Jeribi, and specific appointments made in the Tunisian military command.

A retrial was ordered and Ayari, himself the son of a martyred military colonel, was sentenced to a year behind bars at the country's notorious Mornaguia prison. Following international pressure and campaigns by human rights groups, his sentence was reduced to six months on appeal.

Despite spending just three months in custody, Ayari is shocked by the changes that have taken place during his time in jail.

"People are afraid again. They are afraid to speak - I am really surprised. I used to speak freely with people about certain subjects such as politics, now they are no longer willing to, or they want to talk in private.

"Even on Facebook, people are being more careful about criticising the government. There is a new sensation of fear among people," he adds.

Before the 2011 revolution Ayari was an outspoken critic of Ben Ali's regime. Since then he has continued on social media and his blog to criticise Tunisia's police and military powers.

Ayari was released from prison late last month, but his ordeal at the hands of the Tunisian state is far from over. He now faces fresh charges - of releasing state secrets.

It is unclear if military officials will actively pursue a case against Ayari, but he believes those in power may use the charges against him to stop him speaking out.

"In one case they say I insulted the army, in the other they claim I gave away secret information. How can a civilian living in France have access to secret military information? Of course, I never had it.

"They want me to frighten me. I will not allow them to succeed. I am not a criminal and I have done nothing wrong. Why should I be scared?"

Ayari would be segregated from other prisoners, he says, amid authorities' fears he would speak out about the conditions they faced in the country's notorious jails after his release.

     The revolution was not a success. Most Tunisians know this in their hearts.
- Yassine Ayari

"When I was in prison they didn't want me to see anything. They knew I would be released soon and they didn't want me to speak out about conditions inside.

"If a prisoner only said 'hello' to me when I was walking to the shower, he would be punished for speaking to me.

"They tried to keep an agent with me at all times - even when I was showering, or seeing my lawyer or family.

"There are some scenes I will never forget - people who have been badly tortured and beaten.

"Everyone has been tortured in one way or another. Whether they were accused of stealing, drugs or terrorism. When you go to the police station you don't get released without being tortured."

The revolutionary now faces the tough choice - continuing to speak out in his homeland, or returning to a life of self-imposed exile.

Ayari claims his criticism of the ruling elite has made it impossible for him to lead a normal life in Tunisia.

"I'm afraid if I leave and continue speaking out they will attack my family. I would prefer it if they attacked me directly.

"However, I also need to work, but nobody will hire me. I've tried before and I was unemployed for a year. I sent out 166 applications to companies across the country, but did not even get an interview.

"A friend told me that when HR managers see my name they say 'this guy makes trouble' and decide not to hire me.

"In Tunisia everybody knows everybody, [and] that means I am unemployable here."

Ayari, who many argue embodies the spirit of the Jasmine revolution, may once again be forced to leave the country and a people he has fought hard to defend.

"In 1961, [President Habib] Bourguiba used military justice to imprison his opponents. In 1991, Ben Ali did the same thing. Now, in 2015, Bejji Caid Essebsi is also implementing the same strategy.

"How can we say the revolution was a success when we have the oldest president in the world, who is a tool of the old regime, in charge of the country?

"The revolution was not a success. Most Tunisians know this in their hearts."