A Tunisian court freed a policewoman accused of hitting a young fruit seller who in protest at his treatment by the authorities set himself on fire in an act that helped inspire regional revolts.
Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in front of a government building on December 17, saying he had been driven to this by police who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart over a permit. He died later in hospital.
His protest triggered a wave of protests which spread across the country and, about a month later, forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia, ending his more than two decades in office, Reuters reports.
Faced with growing unrest after Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali had met the young man’s mother who complained about policewoman Fadia Hamdi slapping and humiliating him publicly.
Ben Ali then ordered Hamdi’s detention, in an apparent attempt to appease public anger.
But Bouazizi’s mother withdrew her complaint against Hamdi when the trial began in Sidi Bouzid, about 250 km (155 miles) southwest of the Tunisian capital, on Tuesday.
“I’m innocent. I did not slap him,” Hamdi told the court, before the judge dismissed the case and ordered her release.
Outside the court, hundreds of people had gathered, some carrying banners calling for Hamdi to be freed and saying she was a victim of Ben Ali. They shouted “Freedom, Freedom” and carried banners reading “Fadia is innocent”.
“This is a purely political affair. She is innocent,” Hamdi’s lawyer Besma Nasri told Reuters.
The crowd outside cheered loudly on hearing the verdict.
Tunisia’s revolution played a large part in inspiring the revolt in Egypt which toppled President Hosni Mubarak, as well as uprisings in other countries in the Arab world.
Seeking to assert their authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of protesters who forced Ben Ali to flee, the caretaker authorities are attacking the vestiges of his 23-year rule.
They renamed the main square in Tunis after Bouazizi. The square had previously been November 7 Square, marking the date in 1987 when Ben Ali took power.