Tunisia approves amnesty, declares mourning

TUNIS, Najeh Mouelhi- Tunisia's caretaker administration approved a general amnesty at its first meeting Thursday and declared three days of national mourning for victims of unrest that toppled the previous government.
The cabinet is tasked with ushering in presidential and parliamentary elections within six months, following the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled to Saudi Arabia last Friday after weeks of popular unrest.

Tunisia approves amnesty, declares mourning
In its first session led by interim president Foued Mebazaa, it passed a general amnesty bill that would free political prisoners and legalize banned political parties and also ordered all assets of the ex-ruling party seized.
Banned political groups include the Islamist movement Ennahdha (Awakening), whose leader Rached Ghannouchi, exiled in London, was handed a life sentence by Ben Ali's regime for plots against the state.
The cabinet declared the mourning period from Friday for the 78 people it says were killed when security forces tried to quell protests that started mid-December. The United Nations puts the toll at 100 dead.
As the caretaker government met, critics denounced the new cabinet for including ministers loyal to the discredited Ben Ali regime and street protests swelled Thursday demanding the body resign.
"The people want the government to be fired," shouted protesters outside the offices of the Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), carrying placards that read "We are not afraid of you any more, traitors" and "RCD Out".
Troops fired warning shots to deter demonstrators from climbing over walls and forcing their way into the offices which were previously guarded by army tanks. But officials inside the compound sympathetic to the protesters were seen using steel cable to prise the nameplate of the party from the office walls.
Amid the protests Washington said stability was vital for future elections.
"As the people of Tunisia chart a different future, political and social stability are essential ingredients for credible elections," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on the microblogging site Twitter.
Following the cabinet meeting, ministers were planning to get down to business Friday preparing elections, said cabinet member Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the ex-communist Ettajdid party.
"From tomorrow the committee tasked with preparing the elections will begin work," Ibrahim, the higher education minister, told reporters.
"There are laws to write, and laws to review, in a spirit of cooperation with all points of view and sensibilities."
Eight new ministers who had been RCD members announced they had quit the party earlier Thursday in an effort to distance themselves from Ben Ali's autocratic rule.
But five members of the new cabinet have already resigned, four of whom pulled out Tuesday over the cabinet's links to the RCD.
Every day since 74-year-old Ben Ali fled, huge protests have demanded the outlawing of the RCD which has essentially run Tunisia since independence in 1956.
Earlier Tunisian authorities announced the arrest of 33 members of Ben Ali's family, showing footage on state television of luxury watches, jewellery and credit cards seized in raids on their homes.
Charges of corruption and revelations of the Ben Ali family's lavish lifestyle helped fuel the anger of the protests against his 23-year rule which culminated in his toppling.
Authorities had opened an investigation against the family for plundering the nation's resources through shady dealings including illegal property acquisitions and currency transfers.
Those targeted included Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, her brothers and their children, according to an official source quoted by the broadcaster.
In addition the European Union is planning to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his family, a diplomatic source said in Brussels after a meeting of experts from the 27 European Union member states. A final decision is expected at the end of the month.
The transition government has promised to stage presidential and parliamentary elections within six months but has given no precise dates. Under the North African state's constitution, elections should be held in two months.
The tumultuous events in Tunisia have inspired dissidents across the Arab world and sparked protests in countries including Algeria, Jordan and Egypt.
There has been a spate of suicides across the region in apparent imitation of the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose lonely protest last month kicked off the movement against Ben Ali.

Thursday, January 20th 2011
Najeh Mouelhi

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