Tunisia leader vows break with past

Interim president pledges separation of state and political parties as he seeks to shore up new government.

    Mebazaa vowed to ensure an amnesty for political prisoners, media freedoms and an independent judiciary [EPA]

    Fouad Mebazaa, Tunisia's interim president, has promised a "total break" with the past and hailed "a revolution of dignity and liberty" after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president, fled into exile amid a popular uprising.

    Mebazaa's remarks came as prosecutors opened a vast inquiry into the affairs of Ben Ali, including investigations into his assets and the arrest of dozens of family members.

    Speaking on Tunisian state television on Wednesday, Mebazaa said there would be a complete separation between the state and political parties.

    Rejecting the ways of the previous government, he said "together we can write a new page in the history of our country".

    In his first public appearance since being sworn into office on Saturday, Mebazaa also vowed to ensure an amnesty for political prisoners, media freedoms and an independent judiciary.

    'Fresh start'

    The new government also began releasing prisoners on Wednesday, with one government official saying 1,800 non-political prisoners who had less than six months to serve were freed.

    Amnesty International, the London-based rights organisation, praised the release as a positive step, but said the former detainees should receive reparations.

    "The Tunisian authorities now need to show that they are really serious about ending the culture of human rights abuses that has existed for over two decades, and begin to rein in the security apparatus that has harassed and oppressed ordinary Tunisians for so long," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme, told the Reuters news agency.

    However, protests against the new government continued on Wednesday, with many Tunisians angry that several members of the previous government were named in a so-called "unity government" announced on Monday.

    Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis demanding that former allies of deposed Ben Ali stop leave  power and later, about 30 youths broke a curfew and set up camp to stage a sit-in near the heavily guarded interior ministry.

    "This all comes at a time when Tunisians are showing little patience with this government and saying that they don't really see radical change," Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra said, reporting from Tunis. 

    "Therefore they are building up more momentum to see some of the ministers who were associated with Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali leave this government.

    "They are looking forward to a fresh start in Tunisia. They are saying that they have been betrayed by the old guard."

    Assets inquiry

    Tunisian investigators have said they will look into the extensive domestic and foreign assets held by Ben Ali.

    The Swiss government earlier said it had frozen Ben Ali's funds in Switzerland, as the country "wants to avoid our financial centre being used to hide funds illegally taken from the populations concerned," Micheline Calmy-Rey, the country's foreign minister, said.

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    Swiss authorities have estimated that Tunisian government officials have put about $620 million into Swiss banks.

    The central bank has already taken over a bank owned by Ben Ali's brother-in-law in the first such move against assets controlled by the former president's influential family, which formed the core of Tunisia's business elite.

    Tunisian television reported that 33 members of the deposed leader's family had been arrested on suspicion of "crimes against Tunisia".

    "Investigations will be carried out in order for them to face justice," a statement read out on state television said, citing an "official source".

    It showed footage of gold and jewellery allegedly found in the possession of the arrested members of Ben Ali's family.

    Cabinet controversy

    Tunisia's new government is to hold its first cabinet meeting on Thursday but it remains clear if the cabinet can survive after the withdrawal of a number of opposition figures angry over the number of Ben Ali loyalists handed positions. 

    Negotiations over the inclusion in government of the main UGTT trade union, three members of which pulled out on Tuesday, broke down on Wednesday.

    Abdessalem Jrad, the secretary general of the UGTT, said the group could not be part of a government "that includes symbols of the old regime".

    Ahelbarra said the government had only hours in which to convince the unions to rejoin the government, which could help to gain popular support.

    "They are desperate to patch together a strong coalition government," he said.

    "The biggest problem they are facing is that a lot of Tunisians still consider this government illegitimate.

    "And if those who walked out yesterday maintain their positions, this could be the beginning of the end of this coalition government."

    Meanwhile, the Tunisian government gave legal status to three parties barred under the previous administration and freed a dissident journalist, Fahem Boukadous, who was sentenced to four years in prison last year for his work.

    Tunisia's new leadership is due to hold democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in the next six months, although no dates have been set. Under the constitution, elections should take place in less than two months.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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