Tunisian police used tear gas and water cannons on Friday to disperse hundreds of protesters who defied a ban on gatherings to protest against President Kais Saied’s power grab last July – on the 11th anniversary of the revolution in Tunisia.
Late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile eleven years ago after waves of similar protests. Police deployed heavily in central Tunis to counter anti-Saied rallies calling for an end to his “coup”.
The demonstrators had gathered in spite of restrictive orders on gatherings imposed on Thursday as coronavirus cases surge in the North African country. Saied’s opponents say the numbers are politically motivated.
Over 1,000 protesters gathered on Mohamed V Avenue, but they were prevented from accessing the iconic Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the vast protests that toppled Ben Ali in 2011.
Some demonstrators broke through a police cordon before police baton charges and tear gas and water cannons pushed them back.
Fathi Jarai, president of the independent anti-torture body the INPT said “It’s the most violent intervention by security forces we’ve seen in the past year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests.”
In reference to Saied’s July 25 moves in which he sacked the government, froze parliament and seized a range of powers, many protesters had chanted “down with the coup!” “freedom now!”
He has since virtually ruled by decree, to the outrage of his opponents, including the powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.
Some Tunisians, tired of the inept and graft-ridden parliamentary system, welcomed his moves. But for his critics, both among Ennahdha members and on the left, they foreshadowed a possible return to the same kind of autocratic practices that were common under Ben Ali.
Foremost human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, who headed the now-defunct Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), accused authorities of taking away Tunisians’ right to protest and threatening the country’s “hard-won freedom”.
In December, the former justice minister and Ennahda deputy leader Noureddine Bhiri was arrested by plainclothes police officers and later slammed with alleged “terrorism” offences.
Bhiri, 63, has been on hunger strike since his arrest and is currently in custody at a hospital, in circumstances described by Human Rights Watch as “abduction-like detention”.
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