1000’s protest in Tunis regardless of the police blockade

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© Reuters. A large rally is planned in Tunis to mark the activist’s death and to protest the abuse by the police

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From Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters, backed by Tunisia’s powerful union, gathered in central Tunis on Saturday for the country’s largest demonstration in years, defying a police cordon blocking streets in much of the capital.

The rally was held to mark the anniversary of the 2013 murder of a prominent activist and to protest police abuse, which protesters claim has threatened the freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that sparked the “Arab Spring” .

Riot police installed barriers in the city center, preventing both cars and many people from entering the streets around Habib Bourguiba Avenue as thousands of people gathered, a Reuters witness said.

“I’ve lived freely for 10 years … I’m not ready to lose her,” said Haytem Ouslati, a 24-year-old protester. The demonstrators picked up posters condemning police violence and sang, “Don’t worry. The street belongs to the people.”

Unlike previous demonstrations in a wave of protests that has spread across Tunisia in recent weeks, the rally on Saturday was supported by the UGTT union, the country’s most powerful political organization with one million members.

Samir Cheffi, a senior UGTT official, said the protest was necessary to protect freedoms. “Today is a cry of alarm to defend the revolution and protect the freedoms threatened,” he said.

The protests, which began last month over inequality, increasingly focused on the large number of arrests and reports – rejected by the Home Office – of abuse of detainees.

Mohammed Ammar, an MP for the Attayar party, said he called the prime minister to protest the closure of central Tunis.

The demonstrators sang against the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which is a member of successive government coalitions, and repeated the Arab Spring slogan: “The people want the overthrow of the regime”.

A decade after the revolution in Tunisia, its political system is caught up in endless arguments between the president, prime minister and parliament, while the economy stagnates.

While some Tunisians, disaffected by the fruits of the insurrection, are nostalgic for the days of autocracy, others have condemned a perceived erosion of the freedoms that democracy secured.

For some, the feverish climate has been a reminder of the political polarization after an alleged stubborn Islamist murdered secular activist and lawyer Chokri Belaid in February 2013.

His death sparked a wave of protests in Tunisia that resulted in a major agreement between the main Islamist and secular political parties to prevent the country from sinking into violence.

“We will not accept that Tunisia becomes a barracks. We ask the president to intervene and protect freedoms,” said Naima Selmi, a woman in the protest.

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