A prominent figure in Tunisia’s Salafist movement has died nearly two months after launching a hunger strike following his arrest for an attack on the US embassy, his lawyer and the justice ministry have said.
Mohammed Bakhti died in hospital on Saturday, two days after the death of another suspect, the 26-year-old student Bechir Gholli. They were among dozens of Salafists, hardline Muslims, on hunger strike over prison conditions.
“It’s a shame that Tunisians die in prison after the revolution,” Bakhti’s lawyer, Anouar Aouled Ali, told Reuters.
The lawyer had warned that Bakhti, who was suffering from a brain haemmorrhage, was in critical condition for several days.
Bakhti and Gholli started their hunger strike in late September, days after their arrest for a September 14 attack on the US embassy during which four of the assailants were killed in clashes with security forces.
They insisted they were innocent and protested over the conditions of detention, while the Salafist movement charged it was being victimised by the authorities.
Bakhti was considered a senior figure in the jihadist movement and close to Abu Iyad, the alleged organiser of the embassy attack who is on the run.
He was jailed for 12 years in 2007 for bloody clashes between the army and Islamists in Soliman, near the capital Tunis, under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime but released under an amnesty declared after the 2011 revolution.
In the attack on the US mission, several hundred protesters, angry over an anti-Islam film made in the United States, stormed the sprawling embassy compound in a suburb of Tunis.
More than 100 people were detained following the attack.
Tunisia became the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” in January 2011 when protesters overthrew a long-established government and sent political shockwaves through the Arab world.
“The death of Tunisians because of hunger strikes is unacceptable .. the government should respond to the demands of the rest of the hunger strikers,” Imen Triki, president of the Freedom and Fairness human rights group, said.
“We regret the death of any Tunisian .. We have made many attempts to persuade Gholli and Bakhti to stop the hunger strike, but they refused and we provided them medical assistance,” Justice Minister Noureddine Behiri said on Friday.
The deaths of the two Salafists could embarrass the Islamic government, which is under pressure from both Salafists calling for the introduction of Islamic law and secular opposition parties determined to prevent this.