Tunisian artists rally remember Chokri Belaid

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Tunisian artists gathered to remember slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid on Sunday, nearly two weeks after his death.

No one has claimed responsibility for Belaid’s February 6 killing, which outraged public opinion and created a political crisis in Tunisia, the cradle of Arab revolts that began two years ago.

Belaid, who belonged to a small leftist party, was shot dead outside his home. He was a fierce critic of the dominant Islamist Ennahda party, expressing the fears of many Tunisians that hard-won freedoms were at risk from religious radicals in the government.

After marking a minute’s silence outside Belaid’s house on Sunday, one activist from the opposition leader’s People’s Front party said he believed many artists were also under threat.

”The aim of this event is to celebrate the soul of the martyr. Our friends the artists are struggling for the freedom and democracy which martyr Chokri struggled for. Even the artists are targeted. Some information shows that there are lists of artists to eliminate,” said Taoufik Mellah.

Many Tunisians fear their North African country, long considered one of the most secular in the Arab region, may succumb to pressure to ban films, plays or musical performances, and to censor exhibitions.

Religious hardliners have fanned those fears by successfully stopping performances on the grounds they violate Islamic principles. The killing of Belaid has now added to those fears.

Ennahda has denied accusations from some members of Belaid’s family that it was responsible for his killing. His wife Basma has castigated Tunisia’s Islamist-led government for failing to prevent her husband’s assassination, and has asked the authorities to provide protection for herself and her two daughters.

“They asked me: where do you get your strength from? I get it from the love around me, the love of Tunisians. From the love of people who attended the funeral [applause]. From the love of people who came to my home, from the love of people who mailed me, from the love of people who came today,” she told the crowds at Sunday’s rally.

Basma Belaid has captured public attention as a powerful opposition voice in her own right.

A lawyer and women’s rights activist who has been involved in left-wing politics since her university days, she told supporters her husband would have wanted the struggle to continue.

“Our Tunisia is sweet, is beautiful, is great, is free and it will stay free. Chokri Belaid is a gift for Tunisia. We gave him as a present to Tunisia. He gave himself as a present to Tunisia with conviction. He raised his head up. He would never accept Tunisians giving up and lowering their heads. Lift your heads up! We are in beautiful Tunisia,” she said.

Sunday’s rally came a day after tens of thousands of supporters of the country’s Islamist-led government marched in the capital in one of the biggest in a series of pro-government and opposition rallies sparked by Belaid’s assassination.

Belaid’s killing by an unidentified gunman was Tunisia’s first political assassination in decades and has shaken a nation still seeking stability after the overthrow of veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

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