TUNIS: A Tunisian court fined a television boss $1,550 on Thursday for showing a film that includes a scene depicting God, drawing US criticism and highlighting a growing divide between rightists and secularists.
The court found Nabil Karoui, head of the private TV station Nessma, guilty of disturbing public order and attacking moral values by broadcasting the award-winning animated film "Persepolis".
The film, about a girl growing up in Iran, includes a scene depicting God, which is forbidden in Islam. It enraged some members of the Salafi school of thought, who subsequently attacked the station.
The fine was substantially less severe than the prison term that Karoui's opponents had demanded. The charges carried a possible sentence of up to three years in prison.
Tunisia is struggling to balance religious sensitivities with newfound freedom of expression nearly 18 months after its revolution ousted veteran dictator Zine alAbidine Ben Ali and set off a wave of "Arab Spring" uprisings in the region.
The United States expressed disappointment at the ruling.
"His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia," the US ambassador Gordon Gray said in a statement.
"We understand that Mr Karoui has the right to appeal his conviction, and we hope this case will be resolved in a manner which guarantees free expression, a basic right denied to Tunisians during the Ben Ali era."
Some rightists, free to express their views after the revolution ended a ban on their activities, have become assertive in defending their faith and pushing for religion to have a bigger role in society.
They said the broadcast of "Persepolis" was an affront to Muslims and a deliberate provocation. Some members of Salafi school of thought have said the television boss should be executed.
The rightists have clashed with secularists who believe the values of modernity and individual freedom that shaped Tunisia for the past half century must be preserved.
They saw the prosecution of Karoui as an attack on freedom of expression, a position echoed by rights groups including Amnesty International.
The ruling came on the World Press Freedom Day, which is marked by celebration in Tunisia where freedom of expression was curtailed under Ben Ali.
"The fact that Karoui has been fined even one dinar is an attack on freedom of expression and creativity on world press day," Karoui's lawyer, Abada Kefi, told Reuters.
"This day ought to have been a day of celebration for the press ... This same law (on which Karoui was charged) was applied during the Ben Ali era."