Tunisia frees two students arrested for satirical song criticising police

TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian judge on Thursday freed two students arrested over a satirical song criticising the police, after President Kais Saied said their detention was "totally unacceptable" and called for their release, their lawyers said.

Youssef Chelbi and Dhia Nsir were arrested on Wednesday after posting a clip on Tik Tok and Facebook showing them laughing and singing a sarcastic song upbraiding the police over treatment of detainees and a drugs law.

Their arrest on charges of insulting others through social networks alarmed rights activists and bloggers, who republished the song to show solidarity with them. They said freedoms in Tunisia were under siege and that it has become a large prison.

Saied, in a video posted on the presidency's Facebook page, said he was "deeply surprised" by the arrests as it was "totally unacceptable to arrest two young men who were just singing a song", and he urged the judiciary to its duty and release them.

Dozens of journalists and activists protested on Thursday against restrictions of freedoms and trials targeting journalists and bloggers. Some Tunisians posted other satirical songs criticising the police on social media.

Freedom of speech and media were key gains for Tunisians after the 2011 revolution that ousted autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring protests.

Saied himself has drawn accusations of oppression since he shut down parliament in 2021 and seized all powers in moves that his opponents call a coup. He pledged to protect ordinary rights and freedoms and vowed not to be a dictator.

But activists and journalists say freedom of speech faces a serious threat under Saied's rule.

"These are dark times..Freedom of speech is increasingly hit. About 20 journalists and bloggers are being pursued because of posts or positions against authorities," journalists' union chief Mahdi Jlassi said.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Mark Heinrich)