By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian appeals court on Tuesday ordered the release from jail of a rap singer who described police as dogs in a video, a ruling that may ease criticism of the Islamist-led government over perceived restrictions on free speech.
Critics say free expression has been threatened under the governing coalition led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which won a free election after a 2011 uprising ousted a secular dictatorship. The government denies the accusation.
Last month, another court sentenced Ala Yaacoub - more widely known by his rap name Weld El 15 - to two years in jail for insulting police by accusing them of using excessive force against ordinary people.
In the video posted on YouTube that triggered the court case, the singer can be heard saying: "Police, magistrates, I'm here to tell you one thing: you dogs, I'll kill police instead of sheep; Give me a gun, I'll shoot them."
In a separate internet post earlier this year, he said: "I was only using the language of the police. They have harassed me verbally and physically. As an artist, the only way I could answer them is through art. I gave them violent art."
His lawyer, Ghazi Mrabit, said the appeals court had reduced his sentence to a six-month suspended jail term, and "this means he will be freed now ... This is a historic victory for freedom of expression and democracy in Tunisia".
Dozens of the rapper's fans rallied to welcome the verdict and shouted anti-police slogans. Police did not intervene.
"We will continue our fight for freedom of expression and we will launch more songs against power .. We are not afraid of any authority," another rapper know as Klay BBJ said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said that the issue of the rap singer had nothing to do with free speech, rather he was in prison because of his call to kill.
Critics have accused Ennahda-led authorities of encouraging intolerance for secular views and lifestyles by failing to prevent militant Islamist Salafi attacks on certain cultural institutions and individuals. Salafis disrupted several concerts and plays last year, saying they violated Islamic principles.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Mark Heinrich)