Ben Ali pardons Gafsa prisoners
By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia from Tunis – 10/11/09
Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Thursday (November 5th) pardoned 60 Gafsa mine basin prisoners who were arrested in June 2008 after protesting what they called the poor working conditions of the region's teachers.
The demonstrators were prosecuted on charges including forming a gang with the intent of attacking public property, assaulting security officers and throwing Molotov cocktails. The defendants' lawyers called the charges trumped-up. In December of last year, dozens of protesters, all trade unionists, were convicted and handed sentences ranging from 4 to 10 years in prison.
Political leaders and civic groups throughout Tunisia hailed the pardons and said they would do much to ease the political and social tension that still exists in Redayef and Gafsa after the protests.
"We hope that we will be able to get past all the causes that gave rise to these events that several sides in the political arena tried to take advantage of," Unionist Democratic Union general secretary Ahmed Innoubli said in a press statement released on November 6th.
Innoubli said the prisoners' release would be "an opportunity for everyone to further look for solutions for the problem of disparity between regions".
However, Adnane Hajji, a leader of the protests and among those recently released, vowed to continue the fight. "Our protests made just and legitimate demands, and they are clear to everyone," he said. "The region suffers from poverty, unemployment, pollution and diseases. We call for the realisation of justice in development and in the fair distribution of wealth."
"The charges that brought my colleagues and me to prison are fabricated and false," Hajji said. He nevertheless added that he was "overjoyed" to return to his family and everyday life.
The Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights also weighed in on the news, and called on Tunisian authorities to stop harassing journalists and imprisoning dissidents.
Maya Jribi, Secretary-General of the Progressive Democratic Party, insisted that all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists should be released from jail.
"These painful pages of Tunisian history won't be turned unless the state puts an end to the security and judicial procedures for dealing with political differences, and unless it enacts the general amnesty law that includes all prisoners of conscience, enables all banished people to return home, and restores prestige and rights for all those who have been subjected to prosecution and imprisonment because of their opinions or political activities," she said.
The Ettajdid Movement took a similarly strong stance in reaction to the news of the prisoners' release. In a press statement released on November 5th, the party said that restoring the peaceful atmosphere in the Gafsa region would "require putting an end to harassment, provocations and arrests that some journalists, students and human rights activities are subjected to in Tunisia".
The party also called on Tunisian officials to "take immediate actions that would enable the mining basin protesters to restore their full rights to citizenship, employment and decent living, and to put an end to the security and judicial procedures once and for all, and to seriously work on solving the problems of development in the region."
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