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Tunisians defy protest ban to demand release of president's critics

People take part in a protest against president Kais Saied policies, in Tunis, Tunisia, Mar. 5, 2023. They demanded the release of opposition figures arrested in recent weeks   -  
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Hassene Dridi/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.


Hundreds of Tunisians rallied in Tunis Sunday (Mar. 5) in defiance of a protest ban.

They demanded the release of more than 20 prominent figures opposed to the president who were arrested in recent weeks. The personality included members the main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF).

Among the protestors NSF members, relatives of imprisoned public figures some of whom were locked behind bars under former ruler and ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"The message that we are sending today is 'No to fear'," Lamine Bouazizi, a member of the National Salvation Front said.

"Tunisia belongs to its people and not to an opportunist who wants to set it on fire! He is following in the footsteps of Mussolini and Hitler, those two criminals who set their countries on fire! We will not allow a Hitler junior to destroy Tunisia!"

"This putschist [Editor's note: President Kais Saied] has no ears, he does not listen to anyone!" said Ezzeddine Hazgui, a member of the National Salvation Front (NSF) whose son Jawhar Ben Mbarek was arrested.

 He is a dictator, who does not have the capacity to dictate, and he puts people in prison because he fears it and does not know that activists do not fear any prison!"

Hazgui, who was imprisoned under the dictatorship of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, attended the rally and denounced Saied in comments. 

Saied has accused those arrested of "terrorism" and causing recurrent food shortages as well as plotting against the state.

In February, the UN high commissioner for Human rights expressed "concern over the deepening crackdown against perceived political opponents and civil society in Tunisia, including through measures taken by the authorities that continue to undermine the independence of the judiciary."

Contested leader

President Kais Saied sacked the government and froze parliament in a 2021 power grab and imposed changes to the country's political system.

Denouncing Saied's power grab as a "coup", the protesters defied a ban on demonstrations imposed by Tunis authorities.

Initially dozens gathered by a key bus and tramway station in central Tunis before charging police barricades to then march towards Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where the crowd soon swelled to more than 500, reporters said.

A policeman used a loudspeaker to urge demonstrators to move out of the iconic avenue -- the site of repeated protests -- and head towards the headquarters of Al Joumhouri party several kilometres away, saying: "Please, the march is banned".

The NSF had called for the demonstration, which came a day after more than 3,000 joined a Tunis rally organised by the powerful UGTT trade union.

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