33 relatives of deposed Tunisian president arrested


THIRTY-THREE members of deposed Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s family have been arrested on suspicion of “crimes against Tunisia”, the government announced yesterday, as it tried to make good on a pledge to “break with the past”.

State television last night showed images of seized gold and jewellery allegedly found in the family members’ possession and cited official sources saying the individuals would “face justice”.

The news was released as prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi continued efforts to persuade sceptical opposition figures that the new unity coalition would be independent of Ben Ali’s ruling party.

Mr Ghannouchi brought opposition leaders into the coalition on Monday, but four members of the cabinet resigned within 24 hours in protest against the prime minister’s decision to retain ministers from the ruling RCD party in important posts. The new cabinet’s inaugural meeting was cancelled yesterday, while hundreds of protesters gathered in central Tunis for a third day to press for the removal of RCD members from the government.

Attempting to allay opposition concerns, interim president Fouad Mebazza appeared on television to promise a “complete break with the past”. He added that “a total break between the parties and the state” would be one of the government’s priorities.

He and Mr Ghannouchi have already resigned from the RCD and Ben Ali has been symbolically expelled from the party. It was also claimed yesterday that all political prisoners detained under Ben Ali’s rule – including members of the banned Islamist movement Ennahda – had now been released.

While protesters again turned out on the streets of Tunis, no violence was reported. An official state of emergency remains in place and schools have yet to reopen, but the curfew was shortened by three hours.

Heavier traffic on the streets of the capital and fewer roadblocks on the country’s primary roads suggested that normal life was gradually resuming.

Leaders of Tunisia’s opposition parties – tightly controlled and denied a meaningful role under Ben Ali’s rule – continued to regroup.

Moncef Marzouki, the leader of an opposition party who returned to Tunisia from exile in France this week, visited the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in December set off the wave of unrest that culminated in Ben Ali’s departure last Friday.

Mr Marzouki, who plans to run for president, also visited the spot where Bouazizi set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid. About 300 people attended a rally where he called for an independent figure to be appointed in place of the current prime minister.

“If the situation continues with a government built on this old dictatorship, the situation will continue on the street and what I want is for Tunisia to return to stability as soon as possible,” he said.

Other supporters of the protest movement believe RCD figures must be retained to ensure a successful transition. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water,” Tunisia’s Le Quotidiensaid in an editorial that emphasised the new national unity government was temporary and would prepare for democratic elections.

“The resentment is legitimate but it should not transform itself into a blind hatred that blocks the victorious march of the Tunisian people towards liberty,” it added.

Separately, Switzerland said it was freezing assets of Ben Ali and his entourage, while Tunisia’s state news agency said an investigation would be launched into allegations that Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and members of their families had acquired property and stocks abroad.

The United Nations confirmed it would send a team of human rights officials to Tunisia next week to advise the new coalition government, while UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay said she had information that more than 100 people had died in the recent violence.

The Tunisian government puts the figure at 78.