Carrying pictures and placards bearing the names of their menfolk, a crowd throngs the steps of the Justice Ministry demanding Tunisia’s new amnesty include the release of 1,500 people jailed under anti-terrorism laws.
Many in the crowd, mostly women, say their relatives were wrongly accused under ousted President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, simply because they were Muslims who grew beards or attended daily prayers.
“My brother is sentenced to 30 years of terrorism. Some are sentenced to death or to life. We want the government to free our sons as the anti-terror laws are oppressive and unjust,” said Asma Ksouri, who wore a long black coat and black headscarf, symbols of devout Islamic faith banned under Ben Ali.
“He was accused of being a Salafist Muslim. Because he went to dawn prayers, they said he wanted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq but he was just a Muslim, a devout person,” she said referring to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam observed by some extremist groups including Osama bin Laden’ s al Qaeda.
Like other Western-allied Arab leaders, Ben Ali saw himself as a bulwark against the spread of militant Islam.
Human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine says no one knows how many political prisoners are held in Tunisia’s jails but estimates they number about 1,500, mostly accused of terrorism.
“What we know is that over the last six years, every Saturday there was a special court that sentenced people to 20 years or more,” she told Reuters.
Tunisia’s interim government, which took power after Ben Ali was forced out last week, quickly announced all political prisoners would be released and banned parties recognised.
Some have since been freed but it appears others held on terrorism charges remain in jail.
“My son prayed like other people. He was sentenced to 12 years,” said Fatima Hussein, whose son Mehdi, 31, was arrested in 2006. “Why are they not included in this amnesty law? Where is this amnesty? This terror law was an oppressive law.”
Secularism was strictly enforced in Tunisia for decades. Women were not allowed to wear the veil nor men to grow beards.
Ben Ali banned Tunisia’s largest Islamist party, Ennahda — Renaissance — and cracked down harshly on its members during the 1990s. Its leaders were exiled and its members were jailed, although the party is considered moderately Islamist.
“My brother is accused of terrorism. His father died so he began to pray and they stopped him outside the mosque and asked him for ID. He didn’t have it with him and the next time they cracked down on the mosque they took him,” Fatiha Ben Amer said of Imad, a carpenter, who has served four years so far.
“They sentenced him first to death, but reduced it to life. He had been married only four months when he was arrested.”
Some of those still in prison were arrested following clashes that broke out in 2006 and 2007 between security forces and a small group of Islamists in an area called Sulaiman.
The fighters were killed and security forces later arrested 30 men with alleged links to the group in Sidi Bouzid, home province of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation ignited the the protests that led to the downfall of the government.
The families of those arrested said they signed confessions under duress and were not involved in political activities or violence. They say Ben Ali’s crackdown was aimed at bolstering his ties with Washington.
“Their trials were unjust,” said Lamine Ragouby, whose son Saber, 27, was sentenced to death for his alleged role.
“He had no gun, he had no passport or driving licence. There were clashes but those involved were killed,” said Ragouby, who has not been allowed to visit his son for three years and relies on the International Committee of the Red Cross for information.
Others were arrested abroad and deported to Tunis.
“My son Karim is accused of terrorism. He was studying Islamic law in Syria and they arrested him for 2 1/2 months before moving him to Tunisia…” said Khmeisa Saidani. “They said he wanted to go to Iraq but he was just a normal person.”