162 arrests after ultraconservative Islamists riot in Tunisia

By Bouazza Ben Bouazza, AP

TUNIS, Tunisia–Calm returned to Tunisia on Wednesday after days of riots by radical Islamists across the country left 62 members of the security forces injured and led to 162 arrests.

Ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafists attacked an art gallery Sunday for an exhibition they said insulted Islam. After security forces dispersed them with tear gas, gangs attacked police stations around the country.

The country is bracing for renewed unrest on the Muslim holy day of Friday when a number of conservative religious groups have called for renewed demonstrations against insults to the faith.

Tunisia for half a century was ruled by a secular dictatorship that fiercely repressed any Islamist sentiment and since the overthrow of the regime last year, there has been a spread of religious groups.

A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections and allied itself with two secular parties, but hard-line groups say the government is not doing enough to implement Islamic law.

Late Sunday, hundreds of extremists destroyed artworks at an exhibit in the suburb of La Marsa that included paintings that caricatured Mecca, portrayed a nude woman, and showed the word “Allah” spelled with strings of ants.

That night the violence spread around the suburbs of Tunis and police stations and courthouses were attacked by mobs throwing stones and firebombs and had to be dispersed with tear gas and warning shots.

Ex-Tunisia President Gets 20 Years in Absentia A Tunisian military court on Wednesday convicted the former president in absentia of inciting violence and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

It is Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s first conviction by a military court. He has already been convicted of drug trafficking, illegal arms trading and abuse of public funds and sentenced to 66 years in prison by a civilian court.

Ben Ali was overthrown in a month-long popular uprising last year and fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011. The court convicted Ben Ali of having given the orders to security forces to fire on protesters. Wednesday’s case was over an incident in the town of Ouardanine when police opened fire on a crowd attempting to stop the president’s nephew Kais from also fleeing the country, killing four.

A number of other officials convicted in absentia in the case were given 10-year sentences, according to the state news agency, while others in custody received five years in prison. The relatives of the victims we’re awarded between US$100,000 and US$150,000.