Lawyers in Tunisia stage strike in protest against police repression


THOUSANDS OF lawyers went on strike in Tunisia yesterday to protest against police repression of a march in the town of Sidi Bouzid, where a rare wave of anti-government demonstrations recently began.

The unrest was set off when a young man set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid last month to protest against the confiscation by police of his fruit and vegetable cart.

Mohammed Bouazizi (26) died from his injuries on Tuesday, and the incident has been embraced by trade unionists and students angry with conditions under the country’s authoritarian regime.

The national lawyers’ association said 95 per cent of its members took part in peaceful protests in the capital, Tunis, yesterday, according to the news agency AFP. Watched by a significant police presence, they were protesting against the authorities’ repression of a march by lawyers on December 31st in support of the people of Sidi Bouzid.

The death of Mr Bouazizi, whose funeral reportedly attracted 5,000 mourners this week, followed the deaths of two civilians after police fired in “self-defence” to quell rioters in the southern town of Bouziane.

Such protests, which spread to a number of towns and cities across the country in recent weeks, are rare in Tunisia. Its president for the last 23 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has pursued vigorous economic liberalisation and enjoys good relations with western powers thanks to his country’s relative stability and his tough stance on radical Islamism.

The government exerts tight social control, however. The European Commission says participation and debate were restricted during the 2009 presidential election, when Mr Ben Ali got 90 per cent of the vote, and points to a “persistent gap” between the government’s official support for human rights and its application of the law.

Many human rights activists and journalists have been beaten up and imprisoned, some websites are blocked and state surveillance is extensive. Recent violence presents a major test for Mr Ben Ali’s administration, which has long counted on strong economic growth to contain agitation for greater social freedom.

High unemployment appears to be one of the protesters’ primary grievances.

Mr Bouazizi had a university degree but no steady work, and his hardship has resonated widely in a country where the jobless rate stands at 14 per cent but remains much higher outside the capital and coastal tourist regions.

Mr Ben Ali has already announced a massive plan to create jobs and visited Mr Bouazizi in hospital before his death.

Tensions remain, however, and the internet has emerged as one of the main battlegrounds between the state and the protesters. Tunis heavily restricts web access, and some foreign media coverage of recent events has been blocked.

Security technology company Sophos said this week that “hacktivists” from a group calling itself Anonymous had struck some official Tunisian websites, including those of the government and the stock exchange. The attack was in “retaliation” for what the group called “war on free speech and democracy” and the blocking by Tunisia of access to secret US cables released by WikiLeaks.