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After being left on the sidelines of the social protests that led to the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in

'We suffered all sorts of injustices'

Islamists tell stories of repression by ousted regime under harsh anti-terrorism laws that have imprisoned hundreds.

 

By Thibauld Malterre and Kaouther Larbi - TUNIS

 Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," the Islamists are beginning to speak out.

Mixed in among the protesters taking part in daily rallies against the north African state's new interim government, they tell stories of repression by Ben Ali's regime under harsh anti-terrorism laws that have imprisoned hundreds.

"We were on the frontlines against the regime for years and we paid the price. We suffered all sorts of injustices," said Mohammed Hedi Ayani, a militant from the Ennahdha (Awakening) movement banned under Ben Ali.

The new transition government has promised to legalise all movements including Ennahdha and abolish the anti-terrorism laws currently in place.

But for the Islamist activists rallying in the streets that's not enough.

"All the Islamist prisoners have to be freed," said 27-year-old Ines, one amongst of a crowd of relatives of the prisoners who came to protest at the ministry of justice on Tuesday to ask for news about their loved ones.

Ines wore a niqab, a face-covering Islamic veil, which is rare in Tunisia.

"I didn't dare to wear it before, not even to go and buy bread. But now I wear it all the time out of defiance," she said.

A young man said: "Praying used to be considered a crime in Tunisia."

A majority of the Islamists currently in detention were sentenced under an anti-terrorism law adopted under Ben Ali in 2003 that has been heavily criticised by human rights groups both in Tunisia and abroad.

Samir Ben Amor, a lawyer specialising in Islamist cases said around 3,000 people were imprisoned under the law and that between 500 and 1,000 Islamists remain in Tunisia's jails -- just three of them from the Ennahdha movement.

"They were sentenced with unfair trials under the criminal regime of Ben Ali, who used them to make himself look good in America and Europe and show that he was fully enganged in the war on terror," the lawyer said.

He said the only crime of many detainees was consulting banned Internet sites, including jihadist and fundamentalist websites.

Several protesters spoke bitterly about the imprisonment of hundreds of Islamists with sentences that were far harsher than those for imprisoned journalists or human rights activists widely reported in Western media.

"My father spent five years in Guantanamo. He was released and deported without the United States pressing any charges against him. Tunisia sentenced him to seven years in prison when he got back," said Aicha El Hajj.

"It's been a year and a half since I've been allowed to see him," she said.

"My father said that he preferred to go back to Guantanamo, that a day in Tunisian prisons was worse than five years there," she added.

Fethi Abado Soumri, a 40-year-old Islamist, said he will never forget the horror of Tunisia's overcrowded prisons.

"The lack of food forces us to eat mice and they tortured us," he said.

Another woman said: "We are asking for an amnesty for our children.

"My son was sentenced unjustly to eight years for terrorism. He was tortured for nine months. They sodomised him with a baton until he lost consciousness."

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