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TUNISIA: High death toll challenges claims of smooth transition

May 22, 2011 |  1:56 pm

At least 300 Tunisians died during the monthlong uprising that culminated in the overthrow of the regime of Zine el Abedine ben Ali, reported Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, after completing his first mission to the country since the establishment of the interim government. 

The death toll in the country of 10 million, signficantly higher than previous figures, came as a surprise to those who considered the revolution to have been a smooth and peaceful transition. 

"Another 700 were injured," said the special rapporteur citing information provided by the interim Tunisian administration. 

Demonstrations in Tunisia were sparked last December when college-educated but unemployed Mohamad Bouazzizi set himself afire in desperation as popular Tunisian discontent with increasing corruption and unemployment reached its zenith. 

The U.N. mission, whose aim was to assess challenges faced by the interim government and investigate acts of violence committed by security forces loyal to the regime, discovered that "the new authorities have taken a number of steps towards ensuring accountability and long-term reforms," Mendez said.

But the current administration has a long way to go. Acts of torture and abuse carried out in the last weeks of deposed president Ben Ali's rule continue under the interim government, Agence France-Press reported, citing leading Tunisian rights activist Radhia Nasraoui on Saturday.

"I think there is no political will to stop these savage practices," she said.

Some believe the success of the interim government in Tunis could help pave the way for successful transitions to democracy in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, which are undergoing political crises as pro-democracy forces battle entrenched tyrants.

Mendez, who met with senior officials, representatives of political parties and torture victims, emphasized that investigations of torture allegations and "accountability for past abuses" were crucial in bringing an end to the cycle of abuse. 

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 -- Roula Hajjar in Beirut

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