TUNIS — As Tunisia battled the coronavirus pandemic in May, and millions in the North African country found themselves confined to their homes, a lighthearted Facebook post about the virus caught Emna Chargui’s eye and brought a brief moment of laughter in a period of uncertainty.
The “Sourate Corona,” a design that appears to have been created in France, delivered a simple “wash your hands” message framed in recognizable green contours and adorned with virus symbols, mimicking the style of a Quranic verse. Ms. Chargui, 27, shared the post.
But what was meant as a simple quip about the outbreak has become a fight for Ms. Chargui’s freedom of expression that could result in a prison sentence.
This week, Ms. Chargui was found guilty of “inciting hatred between religions,” and sentenced to six months in jail and a $700 fine for the post, in a case that has raised questions about the extent to which freedom of speech is protected in the country. Hundreds have now shared the same image along with the hashtag #FreeEmnaChargui in solidarity with the young woman.
Ms. Chargui’s case has drawn little attention in the country, aside from rights groups calling for her release: The coronavirus pandemic dominates the news cycle, along with the abrupt resignation on Wednesday of the prime minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, just months after he was sworn into office.
But rights organizations have warned that the ruling against Ms. Chargui could set a dangerous precedent in a country that has been hailed as a rare example of democratic success since the Arab Spring in 2011, but where discussions of religion remain taboo.
Ahmed Benchemsi, the communications director for Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa, called the ruling a “setback for freedom of expression in a country that has otherwise made great strides on the path to democracy.”
Tunisia, which enforced a nationwide lockdown and closed its borders in mid-March, has fared better than some of its neighbors in containing the spread of the coronavirus, with 50 deaths and 1,326 confirmed cases as of Friday.
Ms. Chargui said she had received hundreds of death threats and threats of sexual violence since she first shared the image.
“I thought it was a good way to make people aware about washing their hands and be careful with the coronavirus, with a style that everyone knows,” she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday after her sentencing, which her lawyers have appealed.
“I did not even think about how big this would get when I shared it,” she added.
Ms. Chargui, who said she considers herself an atheist, has since deleted the initial post but maintains that she is within her rights to express her personal beliefs.
“My mother wears the veil, she is Muslim, and she supports me,” she said. “I want to be able to live in my country and show that you can be a non-Muslim as well.”
Ms. Chargui’s appeal is likely to be heard by a court in September or October, and she remains free until then.
Tunisia has been praised for a successful democratic transition, despite some political instability, after the Arab Spring uprising that gripped the nation and ultimately toppled the longtime autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Last year, the country of nearly 12 million people completed its second set of free presidential elections since the revolution.
Since the transition to a democratic system, state prosecutors have pursued some individuals for “harming religion” in 2011 and 2012, including two atheists who were sentenced to seven years of jail time for sharing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. (The two were granted presidential pardons two years later.)
But such cases have dwindled after a new Constitution was introduced in 2014 that provides protection of religious freedom and freedom of speech, among other personal liberties.
Yet for some, Ms. Chargui crossed a red line in sharing an image mimicking the sacred text, according to Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Tunis-based deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Some of the comments on Facebook show that what she did is still taboo, even for ‘progressive’ people,” said Ms. Guellali, who said the decision was disproportionate to the perceived offense.
For now, as Ms. Chargui waits for a ruling on her appeal, her life is filled with uncertainty.
Her landlord, she said, had ordered her family to leave the house they have been renting in Tunis for 10 years, “because he wants nothing to do with us.”
Lilia Blaise reported from Tunis and Elian Peltier from London.