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Calls to free Tunisian blogger arrested for 'defaming' army

Tunisians turn to social media, with Facebook pages and Twitter hashtag #Free_Yassine_Ayari to call for blogger's release
Twitter hashtag #Free_Yassine_Ayari is being revived since it was first used in July 2013 (social media)

Tunisian activists are calling for the release of blogger Yassine Ayari after the authorities arrested him at Tunis-Carthage airport as he returned from Paris.

The news of his arrest was reported by his lawyer on Thursday.

The military prosecutor said Ayari had been sentenced in absentia on November 18 to three years' jail on charges of having "defamed army officers and senior defence ministry officials".

Ayari, 33, had accused these officials of financial abuse, the prosecutor said in a statement.

The blogger was unaware of the verdict against him for "undermining" the army, his lawyer Sami Ben Amor said, adding that the verdict was "very harsh".

Ayari, who has posted on Facebook that he stands by every word he has written, has appealed the charges against him and a new hearing in the case has been set for January 6, Ben Amor said.

"This case undermines freedom of speech and is the first of its kind to emerge under the reign of Beji Caid Essebsi," said the lawyer, adding that "Yassine Ayari is paying the price of his political views".

Essebsi, an 88-year old politician who served in the country's former autocratic regimes, won Tunisia's presidential election on Sunday.

His victory follows October legislative polls won by his Nidaa Tounes party. In recent months, Ayari had published blogs very critical of Nidaa Tounes.

Many Tunisians took to social media to comment on the arrest, with a number of Facebook pages set up to campaign for his release.

There were also calls for protests to take place in Tunis and in Paris, calling for his freedom.

"We miss this kind of news, which we haven't seen since 2010", said one commentator mockingly, in a reference to the country's pre-uprising era when journalists and bloggers face imprisonment and possible torture.

Another commentator, who is critical of Ayari, pointed out that the court conviction took place before Essebsi's electoral victory, denying that the country is returning to its old policies of cracking down on dissent.

It is not the first time the blogger, who accuses the county's "old guards" of still running the show, was arrested. The Twitter hashtag #Free_Yassine_Ayari is now being revived since it was first used in July 2013.