Magharebia (Washington DC)

21 November 2012

Tunisian Salafists Suspend Hunger Strike

Tunis — The judiciary should be free from the pressure of "political parties, the media and social institutions" while dealing with the salafist file, the Tunisian justice minister says.

Two salafists arrested in connection with the September 14th US embassy attack were transferred to a Tunis hospital after suspending their hunger strike, AFP reported on Wednesday (November 21st).

Hassen Ben Brik and Ali Trabelsi decided to end their hunger strike in Mornaguia prison after a long discussion with a justice ministry representative, the ministry said in a communique.

Some 54 salafists suspended their protest last Sunday, according to TAP.

The news came a few days after two salafist inmates detained on the same charges had died in prison. Mohammed Bakhti was close to Abu Iyadh, the fugitive leader of radical salafist group Ansar al-Sharia and the alleged organiser of the embassy attack.

Bakhti died last Friday evening. Two days before, Bechir Golli had passed away after a 50-day hunger strike.

"We regret the death of any Tunisian," said Tunisian Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri. "We attempted many times to persuade them to stop the hunger strike but they refused."

"The suspects were arrested based on evidence from the judicial police and judicial investigations. Some of them were caught by police with Molotov cocktails in hand and stealing from the US embassy and the American school of Tunis," he added.

Bhiri also regretted "interference" in the judicial affairs from "many political parties, the media and social institutions".

"The situation has the line of putting pressure on judges through various manifestations of protest and propaganda designed to secure a certain decision," he said.

"Actors involved in the judicial system distance their decisions from political and personal disputes, and treat the cases independently, impartially and professionally. They are also asked to refrain from spreading rumours and disseminating unconfirmed information."

"An independent judiciary is also a judiciary free from the pressure of public opinion, media and political parties, as much as it is independent from the rest of the authorities," Bhiri explained.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki last Saturday called for an inquiry into the deaths of two salafist prisoners. Speaking at a Carthage conference organised by salafist Sheikh Bechir Ben Hassen, Marzouki noted, however, that the "state would not yield to blackmail through hunger strikes".

But the statements failed to calm civil society, with some activists and politicians calling for Bhiri's resignation.

"It is unacceptable to have Tunisians die in prison because of a hunger strike after the revolution," Wafa Party MP Azad Bady said.

Tunisian League for Human Rights chief Abdessatar Ben Moussa called "for the resignation of the minister of justice after holding him responsible for the death of two young salafists from a hunger strike".

Dozens demonstrated on November 6th in front of the justice ministry demanding the release of salafists jailed in connection with recent violence in the country, including the US embassy attack, the Abdellia Palace art show desecration, and the ransacking of Nessma TV.

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