TUNIS Tunisia has rejected as "interference in Tunisian justice" U.S. complaints that the conviction of a television boss in a blasphemy trial raised new fears over free expression.
U.S. ambassador Gordon Gray said on Thursday he was disappointed that a Tunisian court had fined Nabil Karoui, head of private television station Nessma, 2,400 dinars ($1,550) for broadcasting the animated film "Persepolis", which it found was an attack on moral values and a risk to public order.
In his statement, the U.S. ambassador said he hoped the case would be "resolved in a manner which guarantees free expression" when Karoui appeals the verdict.
Tunisia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Monday it would not accept interference in the justice system.
"The Tunisian government expressed deep surprise at the statement of the U.S. ambassador in which he said he was disappointed by the ruling in the Nessma TV case," it said in a statement published on the official news agency.
"The Tunisian government respects the independence of justice, in accordance with international standards and that the freedom of expression in Tunisia is a legitimate right," it said, adding that relations between the United States and Tunisia should be based on respect for sovereignty.
Tunisia is struggling to balance religious sensitivities with newfound freedom of expression nearly 18 months after its revolution ousted veteran dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who severely restricted political and media freedoms.
The case against Karoui, a staunch secularist, followed Nessma's broadcast last year of "Persepolis", an award-winning film about a girl growing up in Iran. The film includes a scene depicting God, which is forbidden in Islam, and enraged some conservative Salafi Islamists who subsequently attacked the station.
The film traces the trajectory of the Iranian revolution, which ultimately transformed Iran into an Islamic Republic. Many Tunisians interpreted the broadcast of the film, shortly before Tunisia's first post-revolutionary elections brought an Islamist party into power, as a political message and a provocation.
The fine was less severe than the prison term Karoui's Islamist opponents had demanded and substantially less than the three year maximum sentence carried by the charges.
However, the whole prosecution was criticized by rights groups, including Amnesty International, from the outset.
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Alison Williams)