Tunis: Two men have been convicted and sentenced to prison in Tunisia for posting on Facebook images of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), a court decision that drew support on Friday from the presidency of this once staunchly secular country.

Jaber Majeri and Gazi Jribi were convicted on March 28 by a Tunisian court for "insulting the sacred" after they posted images of the Prophet with one of his wives, Aisha. They were each sentenced to seven and a half years in prison and fined $800 (Dh2,940).

The verdict, which was made public on Thursday, has been condemned by some as an attack on freedom of expression and a mark of the rising tide of religious conservatism in the country since a popular uprising ousted a dictator a year ago.

Since the fall of Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, a moderate Islamist party Al Nahada won elections in October but has promised not to enshrine Islamic law in the new constitution. That has put it at odds with a vocal minority of Salafis.

Tunisian society has become polarised between those demanding more religion in public life and those who want to preserve secular traditions.

Tunisian President Munsif Al Marzouqi was a noted human rights activist under the 23-year dictatorship of Bin Ali.

His spokesman Adnan Mancer said on Friday that "attacks on the sacred symbols of Muslims and Islam cannot be considered part of freedom of expression".

Verdict excessive

The two men were tried after a lawyer filed a lawsuit against them. Their defence attorney, Ahmad Msallemi, said the two deserved punishment, but that he found the verdict excessive.

"While I fight for freedom of expression with all my might, I feel freedom has its limits, as [Jean Paul] Sartre said, once it harms others," he said.

Majeri is currently in being held in prison in Mahdia, in south-east Tunisia, while Jribi fled to Algeria before trial, Msallemi said.

The head of the private television station Nessma also is on trial for insulting Islam after screening the Iranian animated film Persepolis. The film includes a portrayal of God, which is forbidden by Islam.

The trial, which continues on April 19, was the result of a suit filed by a private citizen and also has been condemned for being an attack on freedom of expression.