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Tunisia's parliament delays vote on amnesty law as protests erupt

At least 1,000 demonstrators voice their anger over bill that calls for amnesty for public officials accused of corruption
MPs joined protesters outside who were opposed to the reconciliation bill (AFP)

Tunisia's parliament delayed voting on a bill that calls for amnesty for former public officials accused of corruption during the rule of president Ben Ali.

Lawmakers decided to delay the vote until September after the newly created High Judicial Council asked for more time to study the bill.

Aimed at building reconciliation after Tunisia's 2011 revolution that removed Ben Ali, the bill offered amnesty for high-ranking state officials, including ambassadors and other administrative workers, involved in corruption during the former dictator's rule.

At least a thousand people took to the streets to protest the proposal in the captial of Tunis, rights groups said.

Protests organised by civil society groups in response to the bill were called on Thursday evening and continued on Friday as part of a wider #Manich_Msemah (I will not forgive) campaign.

Some members of parliament also joined the protest to express their displeasure with the bill. 

Eyewitnesses at the protest told MEE that police officers clad in riot gear responded "disproportionately" to demonstrators who set up camps and staged sit-ins outside parliament overnight.

Mohamed Dhia Hammami, who was present at the protests, told MEE that policemen detained individuals and confiscated phones from activists filming the protest. 

"I saw a disproportionate security response," Hammami said. "They attempted to repress the protesters when they tried to set up camps to stay overnight."

Other eyewitnesses at the protest who wished to remain anonymous also told MEE that Abdelmoumen Belanes, an MP for the Popular Front, was attacked by police. Another eyewitness told MEE that police had destroyed tent poles to prevent them from being erected.

MEE could not independently verify these reports.

The bill was first proposed in 2015 by President Beji Caid Essebsi of the Nidaa Tounes party, who insisted that Tunisia must focus on future development rather than previous crimes. It initially offered amnesty to corrupt businesspeople and public officials, but this was firmly rejected by the Ennahdha Party, which has the largest bloc in the parliament after a Nidaa Tounes party split.

Protesters do not accept the arguments of the bill's sponsors. I WATCH, a Tunisian watchdog NGO that aims to fight corruption and one of the protest's organisers, told MEE that the proposed bill is "unconstitutional". Spokesperson Cherif El Kadhi said it perpetuates inequality among citizens, adding: "Why should these corrupt businessmen be offered amnesty for their crimes?"

Members of the Manich Msamah movement among the crowd demonstrating in April 2017 after a parliamentary debate on the Reconciliation Law (AFP)

Monica Marks, a research fellow at the European Research Council-funded WAFAW program, which analyses the effects of 2011's Arab Spring, said the delay in passing the reconciliation bill was a "good sign". 

Describing the bill as "dangerous," she wrote on her Facebook page: "This is a good sign: the High Judicial Council is working independently and not succumbing to executive pressure to facilitate quick passing of the law." 

I WATCH told MEE that the delay is not cause for celebration, and that they will continue their campaign against corruption.

"We fear they might hold a special session of parliament to vote this bill through without announcing it. We will remain ready to take to the streets because we do not trust the authorities," Kadhi said.

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