TUNIS Two young Tunisians have been sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fueled allegations the country's new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech.
The two men had posted depictions of the prophet naked on the social networking site, the justice ministry said, inflaming sensitivities in a country where Muslim values have taken on a bigger role since a revolution last year.
"They were sentenced ... to seven years in prison for violation of morality, and disturbing public order," said Chokri Nefti, a justice ministry spokesman.
One of the two, Jabeur Mejri is in jail while the second, Ghazi Beji, is still being sought by police and was sentenced in absentia.
The sentence was handed down on March 28 but was not reported until Thursday, when bloggers started posting information about the case on the Internet.
"The sentences are very heavy and severe, even if these young people were at fault," one Tunisian blogger, Nebil Zagdoud, told Reuters.
"This decision is aimed at silencing freedom of expression even on the Internet. Prosecutions for offending morals are a proxy for this government to gag everyone."
Tunisia electrified the Arab world in January last year when protests forced its autocratic president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country. In their first democratic election, Tunisians elected a government led by moderate Islamists.
The revolution also brought tension between conservative Muslims who believe their faith should have a bigger role in public life, and secularists who say freedom of expression and women's' rights are now under attack.
The government says it has a duty to defend standards of public decency but its secularist opponents accuse it of using the justice system to crack down on anyone who does not fall into line with religious orthodoxy.
The head of a private television station, Nessma, is awaiting trial on blasphemy charges after his channel broadcast "Persepolis," an award-winning animated film that includes a depiction of Allah.
In February, Nassredine Ben Saida, the publisher of a tabloid newspaper, was jailed for eight days and fined after he printed a picture of a German-Tunisian footballer and his naked girlfriend on the front page.
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Todd Eastham)