Police fired tear gas Monday to disperse a rally on a central Tunis avenue where demonstrations are banned.
Hundreds of demonstrators, marking Martyrs’ Day and protesting against the ban imposed on March 28, sought shelter in neighbouring streets and shops from baton-wielding riot police who beat and detained protesters.
Wrapped in Tunisian flags and shouting “We’re not afraid, the people are here”, the demonstrators had begun running up Habib Bourguiba Avenue around 10am, defying police stationed along the main thoroughfare with helmets and batons.
“I’m here to honour our martyrs, and to protest against the ban on demonstrating here. We’re the ones who freed Tunisia, they don’t have the right to ban our peaceful marches,” septuagenarian protester Mohsen Ben Henda told AFP.
Other demonstrators said they were protesting against governing Islamist party Ennahda.
“We came here today to demand our freedoms, to denounce the repression that Ennahda militias inflict on us every day,” said Raed Korbi, a young doctor who had taken refuge in a cafe.
“What’s happening today is terrible,” said a woman who gave her name only as Yamina and said she was a lawyer, tears welling in her eyes.
“We are peaceful people and they bar us from using Habib Bourguiba Avenue, but they gave it to the Salafists,” a Muslim fundamentalist group, she said.
Tunisia’s interior minister banned demonstrations on Bourguiba Avenue, a symbol of the Tunisian revolution and a common site for rallies, shortly after Islamist protesters demanding sharia law last month attacked actors who had gathered for a separate rally for World Theatre Day.
Saturday, police forcefully dispersed a protest by thousands of unemployed graduates who tried to march on the avenue, wounding about 20, according to organisers.
“I’m shocked,” former Tunisian Human Rights League chief Mokhtar Trifi told AFP. “The people whom the revolution swept to power are now those who stop us from demonstrating. This is a really sad day.”
“Look, this is the free Tunisia, the Tunisia of Ennahda,” shouted another demonstrator.
A correspondent for French news weekly Le Point and the editor in chief of Tunisian online news service Kapitalis were roughed up by police.
The spokesperson for the interior ministry, Khaled Tarrouche, meanwhile defended the ban.
“We will not let chaos take over. People can demonstrate elsewhere than on Bourguiba Avenue,” he told AFP.
The tear gas fired by the police “was to avoid worse clashes”, after demonstrators pelted them with objects, he said, adding that a firebomb had destroyed a police car.
Martyrs’ Day commemorates the bloody crackdown by French colonial troops on a protest in Tunis on April 9 1938.
Official ceremonies on Monday afternoon were to be attended by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi.
Ennahda supporters meanwhile rallied peacefully at a former prison outside the city centre to commemorate the 1938 violence. — AFP