Tunisia’s Marzouki laments violence, political assassinations

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Tunisia’s president lamented last year’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in his country and the July killing of an opposition lawmaker, who was slain after the CIA warned Tunisian officials he was a potential target.

President Moncef Marzouki told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday that he was displeased with court decisions to suspend the sentences of 20 people who were convicted in connection with the embassy attack a year ago. He attributed the lax punishment to a government that he accused of not taking terror threats seriously.

Marzouki said investigations are ongoing into both the embassy attack and the July assassination of opposition lawmaker Mohammad Brahmi. He said “some people probably will pay” for the security lapse that led to the killing.

The president said political assassinations have plunged Tunisia deeper into political crisis. Brahmi was gunned down outside his house - the second such killing of an opposition politician in six months. Both killings are believed to have been carried out by the al-Qaida-linked extremist group Ansar al-Shariah.

“They didn’t assassinate one person, one human being - they did assassinate the whole nation,” Marzouki said at the United Nations in New York, where he will attend the General Assembly starting on Tuesday.

He accused Ansar al-Shariah of seeking to “make the situation in Tunisia like in Egypt - but fortunately, this was not the case.”

Tunisia’s interior minister told lawmakers on Thursday that the CIA had informed authorities that Brahmi was a target and said there had been a “failure” in the security services’ response. The CIA declined to comment.

Tunisia is struggling through a political transition nearly three years after the pro-democracy uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and set off the chain-reaction of Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East.

Brahmi’s assassination put more pressure on the country’s troubled Islamist-led coalition government, which came to power after the uprising and is struggling to rein in extremists.

Marzouki warned about the return of dictatorships to the Mideast and said political unrest and a rise in extremism in Tunisia has cost his country a year’s worth of progress.

Since the December 2010 uprising, the country has been beset by a cratering economy and a sharp rise in extremism.

Efforts to produce a new constitution have been pushed back, faith in the transitional government has dwindled and the two assassinations of opposition politicians this year has thrown the process into chaos.

“The whole trouble we have had was because of these political assassinations. If we didn’t have them, I am quite sure that today we would have our constitution, a new government,” the president said.

Marzouki said he was very concerned about unrest in Egypt, where the military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president in July, and in neighboring Libya, where the government has relied on militias for security since the 2011 civil war that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.

He predicted Tunisia’s government will survive and said another coup is not likely.

However, “democracy cannot be an island in the ocean of dictatorships,” Marzouki said. “This is why it is very, very important for us to have democracy succeed in Libya, in Egypt, everywhere.”

Turning to Iran and its ally Syria, Marzouki said Iran has a unique chance to win respect in the Arab world if it pushes Syria’s regime toward peace.

He renewed his offer of asylum to Syrian President Bashar Assad as a last-ditch option to stop the 2 ½ -year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Marzouki called new Iranian President Hasan Rowhani a “key player” in efforts to negotiate a political settlement in Syria. Iran is Syria’s main benefactor, but the newly elected Rowhani is a relative moderate in the hard-line regime, who has impressed the West by offering to facilitate negotiations between Assad and the Syrian opposition.

Marzouki said he plans to meet with Rowhani during the weeklong meetings at the United Nations.

“I will tell him Iran would be much more respected, accepted, in the Arab world if they put the pressure on their man in Damascus,” he said, adding: “Backing Syria means they are losing the whole Arab world.”

Marzouki defended his asylum offer to Assad - whom he called a criminal - as a desperate attempt to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

“If we can avoid more massacres, if we can prevent thousands of Syrians to die, why not?” Marzouki said. “It’s a terrible, terrible decision, but why not? I am a physician, and life is much more important than anything, even justice.”

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