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Two Tunisian detainees die after hunger strike

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Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation in response to his humiliation seems to be replicated once again under the rule of a legitimate government that came to power through the ballot box.

Meriem Dhaouadi
26 November 2012

The death of imprisoned Mohamad Backhti and Bechir Gholli after almost two months of hunger strike to protest over the conditions of their detentions marks a further embarrassment to the coalition government led by Ennahda party.

Mohamad Backti, a leading figure in Tunisia‘s Salafists circle died last Saturday after refusing food for nearly two months following his arrest for the attack on the US embassy in Tunis sparked by an offensive film made in the United States. Bechir Gholli, another adherent to the Salafists movement died on Thursday also after fasting for nearly two months to denounce his arbitrary arrest. More than 100 people - Salafists and common prisoners - in detention today follow the footsteps of Backti and Gholli through refusing food until their release, a move which may bring more deaths.

Recent protests at the US embassy in Tunis rendered the Tunisian government tougher and less patient with the Salafist troublemakers in Tunisian society.There have been a number of violent incidents caused by hardline extremists: the attacks on the headquarters of the TV channel Nessma for broadcasting Persepolis, the shutdown of La Manouba university because of disagreement over the ban of niqab, the June art gallery exhibition which turned into a bloody riots when a group of extremists attacked the painting exhibition for allegedly humiliating Islam.

The justice system in Tunisia should be reformed and the prosecuted should enjoy the right to a speedy trial and should also be detained in humane conditions. The Tunisian people who took to the streets almost two years ago were motivated by disillusionment over the abuses inside the Tunisian prisons and prolonged detentions without trial, especially when it came to political dissidents.

As it happens, the leader of Ennahda party was caught on a controversial leaked video counselling such representatives of the Salafist movement that they could change the model of the Tunisian society gradually in the direction of their declared goal of implementing sharia law in Tunisia if they did not provoke violence. But when the upheaval went beyond the domestic affairs, that is -  when it came to threatening the American interests in Tunisia, the government showed that it can use its iron hand to satisfy the west. So not much has changed when it comes to prison conditions.

"It's a shame that Tunisians die in prison after the revolution," Bhakti’s lawyer, Anouar Aouled Ali, told Reuters. The revolution that was triggered by an act of suicide seems to be unable to give life back to Tunisians. Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation in response to his humiliation seems to be replicated once again under the rule of a legitimate government that came to power through the ballot box.

One of the mechanisms of a democratic transition period is an independent and transparent judicial system along with humane treatment of inmates in the prisons. One remedy to ensure a fair trial for the detainees is to give access to information to human rights monitors and national watchdog groups to ensure transparency and fairness in the trials. There should be an independent investigation into the true reasons of death of the two salafis. Those who were found responsible must be held to account, starting from the prison officials and including the Ministry of Health who may not have provided adequate medical care. And we should ask why Tunisians are seeking an end to their lives after the revolution of dignity.

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