Tunisia rapper Weld El 15 freed after acquittal

Tunisia rapper Weld El 15 freed after acquittal

GROMBALIA - Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 was acquitted on appeal Thursday of singing songs insulting to the police and has been freed, his lawyer and mother said.

The ruling comes amid ongoing human rights concerns under Tunisia's Islamist-led coalition government, almost three years after a popular uprising ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben and triggered revolutions across the region.

"The court in Grombalia has decided to free Weld El 15," said Ghazi Mrabet after his client appealed a four-month jail term handed down earlier this month.

The mother of Weld El 15, whose real name is Ala Yacoubi, later told AFP "Ala has been freed."

Mrabet said the appellate decision "proves that a part of the justice system is independent, and I welcome this kind of verdict."

The case goes back to August, when Weld El 15 and fellow rapper Klay BBJ were briefly detained after a concert they performed in Hammamet, south of Tunis.

A few days later they were sentenced to 21 months in jail without even being notified of a trial.

Klay BBJ turned himself in a few weeks later and was retried and sentenced to six months in jail, but then acquitted in mid-October and freed.

Weld El 15 remained on the run until December 5 when he turned himself in.

In a retrial the same day, he was sentenced to four months.

Since then, he had been held in La Mornaguia prison in a Tunis suburb.

The court had convicted him of an affront to public decency and insulting public servants in his songs.

At the time, Mrabet said he would appeal, expressing concern that his client might "suffer bodily harm in prison."

News of the verdict was welcomed by Thameur Mekki, who heads a support committee for the two rappers.

"This is good news. The struggle we launched... has made the Tunisian judiciary realise that there is much at stake with such a trial," he said.

Since the Islamist-led government took power after Tunisia's 2011 revolution, trials of musicians and journalists have multiplied, sparking charges that freedom of expression is being stifled.

Attempts to reform the judiciary and security forces since the revolution have largely stalled.

Both musicians had previously rejected the charges against them, and four witnesses testified at the retrial to support Weld El 15's claims.

"The public demanded a controversial song. But I refused, in a gesture of conciliation towards the police, but a large number of police climbed onto the stage and assaulted me," he told the judge in December.

He has repeatedly denied that he had sung a song he wrote entitled "The Police are Dogs" it or that he had made obscene gestures at police at the concert.

He also charged that the police had roughed him up when they arrested him after the concert.

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