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TUNISIA: Rights group calls for investigation of protest deaths

February 1, 2011 |  6:23 am


An advocacy group is calling for a full investigation of alleged human rights violations that took place during the Tunisian protest movement that toppled President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has at least one researcher on the ground in Tunisia, issued a statement recently calling for the transitional government to look into the deaths of at least 78 protesters at the hands of security forces during the recent period of unrest that eventually ousted Ben Ali.

While the world's attention is riveted on events in Cairo and Tunisians are focusing on forming a new government, those killed should not be forgotten, the organization said. 

"Things are moving fast in Tunisia, but finding out who opened fire on demonstrators and why can't wait," Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Although the government has moved to set up an investigation commission, headed by Taoufik Bouderbala, former president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, it has yet to grant the commission any real power in terms of issuing subpoenas or granting immunity to whistle-blowers. The commission is not conducting a criminal investigation, and the most it can do is make its findings available to the courts.

In its report, Human Rights Watch detailed the findings of its investigation into fatal shootings in the cities of Thala and Kasserine, where economic deprivation is more acute and which suffered more fatalities than other cities.

"The area contributed the heart and soul, and much of the pain, of the uprising against Ben Ali," Dan Williams, an Human Rights Watch researcher, said at a news conference Saturday. 

The Los Angeles Times previously spoke to the family members of one fallen protester, Marwan Jamli, who said they were attacked by security forces with tear gas when they tried to hold a funeral for him.

The transitional government's former interior minister, Ahmed Fri'a, has said that 78 people were killed and 94 others were wounded in the weeks of protest that were sparked when Mohammad Abouaziz, a young fruit vendor, set fire to himself in late December after continued police harassment. The United Nations has said 219 people died, 70 by gunfire.

Since the ousting of Ben Ali, protests have continued against the presence of key figures from his regime in the interim government. The government has vowed to hold free elections soon, but so far no date has been established.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Standing in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, Tunisia, residents of the city of Kasserine show portraits of friends and family members killed during clashes with riot police in their region. Credit: Fethi Belaid / AFP/Getty Images