Tunisia judges and lawyers slam ruling Islamists

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Judges and lawyers began a two-day strike Thursday in protest at the murder of Chokri Belaid, himself a trained lawyer, and vented anger at Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party’s perceived interference in the judiciary.

At the court of first instance in Tunis, men and women dressed in black robes chanted the national anthem at the top of their voices before angrily denouncing the assassination of Belaid, who was a virulent critic of Ennahda, the ruling party.

“To the terrorists who killed Chokri, we say that we are not afraid,” shouted barrister Chaouki Ettabib, to the applause of colleagues in the lobby of the court house.

Fiery speeches, sadness and mourning marked the event, together with a key demand.

“The people want an independent judiciary,” they shouted, in what has become a rallying cry.

Wearing a red armband in a gesture of protest, the president of the judges association Kalthoum Kanou, who was persecuted under Ben Ali, said many of Tunisia’s judges remained independent, “unlike the prosecution, which is all under the control” of the executive.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s ruling Islamists Thursday rejected plans by the prime minister to form a government of technocrats while the main trade union called a general strike amid renewed unrest, deepening a crisis sparked by the killing of the opposition leader.

With tensions running high since the murder of Belaid, clashes between police and protesters broke out in the capital and in a central town, AFP correspondents said.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who hails from the ruling Ennahda party, said in a televised address in the wake of public outrage at Belaid’s killing that he would form a new administration of non-political technocrats.

Jebali, who is expected to remain in his post, did not specify that he was dissolving the existing government, nor did he set a date for the reshuffle which must be confirmed by the national assembly.

But Ennadha’s parliamentary leader, Sahbi Atig, said his bloc of MPs rejected the plans, laying bare deep divisions within the Islamist party.

“We have rejected this proposal... The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement,” he said on national television.

Top Ennahda official Abdelhamid Jelassi also criticised Jebali’s decision.

“As far as we are concerned, our country still needs a government coalition based on the results of the elections on October 23, 2011” that Ennahda won, said Jelassi.

The split in the ranks of the Islamists did nothing to calm tensions a day after violence erupted across the country.

Hundreds of anti-Islamist protesters clashed with police on Thursday outside the governor’s office in the central Tunisian town of Gafsa.

The protesters, who were observing a symbolic funeral for Chokri Belaid, the leftist opposition leader assassinated Wednesday, threw petrol bombs at the police, who fired large quantities of tear gas in a bid to disperse them.

It was the first unrest reported in Tunisia on Thursday, after violence the day before left one policeman dead in Tunis and saw protesters torch and ransack offices of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party in a number of towns, including Gafsa.

The phosphate producing region has a history of unrest, with an uprising against the regime of ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2008 brutally suppressed.

Separately, around 300 people marched down Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis, where clashes broke out with the police on Wednesday, calling for regime change.

“The people want the fall of the regime!” chanted the protesters as they headed towards the interior ministry, while the police, using loudspeakers, urged the protesters to remain peaceful and not throw stones.

Police have reportedly fired tear gas at the Tunis protesters, according to AFP.

The family of slain Tunisian critic accused Thursday the ruling Islamist Ennahda party for the assassination of their son, an attempt to silence opposition voices in the post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Chokri’s brother, Abdel Majeed Belaid told Al Arabiya in an interview that his brother had been imprisoned and tortured by the dictatorial regime of the ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, blaming the current regime for acting “worse” than the previous one.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi denied any involvement by his party in the killing.

“Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?” Ghannouchi told Reuters.

He blamed those seeking to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition: “Tunisia today is in the biggest political stalemate since the revolution. We should be quiet and not fall into a spiral of violence. We need unity more than ever,” he said.

He accused opponents of stirring up sentiment against his party following Belaid’s death. “The result is burning and attacking the headquarters of our party in many areas,” he said.

President Moncef Marzouki denounced the killing of Belaid, an outspoken critic of his government, as an “odious assassination”.

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