Tunisian pardoned over Mohammed caricatures

A Tunisian jailed for posting caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed online has received a pardon from President Moncef Marzouki, his spokesman said Wednesday, but it is unclear whether he will be released.

"A presidential pardon for Jabeur Mejri has been issued for the case in which he was condemned to nearly eight years" in prison, spokesman Adnene Manser told Shems FM radio.

Mejri, 29, was sentenced in March 2012 to seven and half years in jail for posting cartoons of the prophet on his Facebook page.

He was convicted of transgressing morality, defamation and disturbing public order, since the penal code does not punish blasphemy.

But the release of the militant atheist, who comes from Mahdia, south of Tunis, remains uncertain after Manser mentioned a separate case against him for which he could be held in pre-trial custody.

"In April, we wrote to the justice ministry... which informed us that the only case brought against Jabeur Mejri was this one, involving the offensive cartoon," Manser said.

"We were surprised by the existence of another (criminal) case," he added without elaborating.

The Tunisia head of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Mokhtar Trifi, who has been closely following the case, said he was unaware of any other allegations against Mejri.

"We have absolutely no knowledge of any other case," he told AFP.

A support group for the jailed Tunisian said it was aware of Manser's comments and was not immediately able to confirm or deny that Mejri was set to face fresh charges.

"No effort will be spared to secure this man's freedom," a statement said.

Tunisia's prisons authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mejri and co-defendant Ghazi Beji, both unemployed and militant atheists, were convicted for "publishing works likely to disturb public order" and "offence to public decency."

Beji fled abroad and was given asylum in France last June.

The president's spokesman said the jailed defendant had apologised for his actions.

"On October 14, Mejri wrote a letter... saying 'I offer my apologies to the Tunisian people and other Muslims for what was written and for the cartoons insulting the prophet," Manser said.

Marzouki also recently submitted the case to a group of Tunisian imams, who replied: "If he repents before God, then God will judge him," Manser added.

The president had said on several occasions he wanted to free Mejri, but warned it would be difficult as long as Tunisia faces a rise in jihadist militancy.

The case has stirred up controversy in Tunisia, with secular opposition and human rights groups campaigning for Mejri's release.

Human Rights Watch said his detention "appeared to contradict the rights inscribed" in the new constitution adopted last month.

Amnesty International called Mejri the first prisoner of conscience in Tunisia following the 2011 revolution that ousted a decades-old dictatorship.