Tunisia Protesters Demand Change, Prisoners Freed

The country’s interim leaders said they had freed the last of its political prisoners and promised a “complete break with the past” on Wednesday to appease the protesters who forced the strongman of 23 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia last week with some of his wealthy entourage.

State television said 33 of Ben Ali’s clan had been arrested for crimes against the nation. It showed what it said was seized gold and jewelry. Switzerland froze Ben Ali’s family assets.

Demonstrators, though less numerous than during the days of rage which unseated Ben Ali, continued to insist on the removal of all ministers from his once feared RCD party.

Only that, they said, could satisfy the hopes of their “Jasmine Revolution,” which has delivered a shock to autocrats across the Arab world.

In Sidi Bouzid, the hardscrabble central Tunisian town where the revolt against Ben Ali erupted after a vegetable seller, insulted by police, set himself on fire, residents said the changes at the top had not gone far enough.

“Ben Ali’s gang remains in the RDC and is trying to steal the revolution and the blood of the martyrs,” said Lazhar Gharbi, a head teacher and unionist in the town.

“We want the dissolution of this party. This is the solution, and we want to hold its members responsible for their corruption,” he told Reuters.


Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist who spent six months in jail over assault charges which his supporters, including international rights groups, said were trumped up to punish him for writing articles critical of Ben Ali, [ID:nLDE63Q1EY] announced he would run for president.

“Ben Ali’s departure was a moment of jubilation and joy for me. It was a big victory for freedom,” Ben Brik said in an interview on Wednesday. “I opened the champagne to celebrate that moment.”

But like many of Ben Ali’s staunchest opponents, Ben Brik said he was not happy that many of the ministers in the new government have a background in the RCD.

“What I say is that the RCD should leave and I also say to these puppets of Ben Ali to go and join him in Saudi Arabia,” he told Reuters.

Members of the interim leadership who held senior roles in the RCD have rushed to distance themselves from it. Interim President Fouad Mebazza and Prime Minister Mohamed al-Ghannouchi both quit the part on Tuesday.


The last of Ben Ali’s political prisoners went free on Wednesday, including members of a banned Islamist group, said Najib Chebbi, an opposition figure named to the cabinet.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, called the release “a significant and positive step” and said they should receive reparations.

“The Tunisian authorities now need to show that they are really serious about ending the culture of human rights abuses that has existed for over two decades, and begin to rein in the security apparatus that has harassed and oppressed ordinary Tunisians for so long,” he added.

Underlining international concern over Tunisia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Washington’s desire for calm.

At a summit in Egypt, the head of the Arab League warned the region’s leaders to heed economic and political problems.

The United Nations said it would send human rights advisers to Tunisia next week.

Rating agency Moody’s Investors Service lowered its credit rating for Tunisia, and Standard and Poor’s has threatened to do
so if uncertainty continues. The cost of insuring Tunisia’s debt against default rose sharply. Reuters