Tunisia: Islamist party condemns slaying of priest

BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA - Associated Press
The Associated Press
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, right, talks with newly named French embassador to Tunisia Boris Bouillon, Thursday Feb.17, 2011 in Tunis. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)
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Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, right, talks with newly named French embassador to Tunisia Boris Bouillon, Thursday Feb.17, 2011 in Tunis.

The Tunisian government and a long-banned Islamist party both denounced Saturday the grisly slaying of a Roman Catholic priest, while several hundred people gathered outside the French embassy in the capital to demand the recall of France's new ambassador.

The 34-year-old priest Marek Marius Rybinski was found on Friday with his throat slit and stab wounds in the parking lot of the religious school in the Tunis suburb of Manouma.

The slaying of the Polish priest was the first deadly attack on members of religious minorities since last month's ouster of Tunisia's longtime autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The Interior Ministry said the killing appeared to be the work of a "group of extremist terrorist fascists," judging by the way it was carried out, and vowed that those responsible for the "odious crime" would be severely punished.

The long-outlawed Islamist Ennahdha, or Renaissance, party called on authorities to "cast light on the real circumstances of this incident ... before making accusations."

The statement, signed by the party's leader Rached Ghannouchi — who returned to Tunisia last month after decades in exile in London — urged "vigilance in order to ward off anything that could spark anarchy in our country."

In a separate statement, the party also distanced itself from a recent anti-Semitic incident in front of Tunis' Grand Synagogue, as well as small protests targeting bordellos and stores selling alcohol.

Ennahdha was considered an Islamic terrorist group and outlawed under Ben Ali, but is widely considered moderate by scholars.

At least 2,000 people staged a peaceful demonstration in central Tunis on Saturday to denounce extremism and call for tolerance.

Bearing placards with phrases like "I'm Muslim, I'm secular, I am Tunisian" and "no to extremism," the demonstrators rallied outside the main Tunis theater.

The call to demonstrate was planned before the anti-Semitic incidents and the killing of the priest, and a march on Friday by scores of Islamists demanding the closure of a Tunis brothel, said Soufiane Chourabi, a blogger who helped promote the anti-extremism rally.

In another protest in the capital, several hundred people gathered Saturday outside the French embassy to demand that France recall its new ambassador, Boris Boillon.

The protesters denounced what they called Boillon's "insulting behavior" at his introductory press conference last week, though it was not clear what exactly he said or did to anger them.

Some of the protesters complained that Boillon had a dismissive and arrogant tone during Thursday's news conference, while others brandished signs reading "Tunisia: respect it or leave it."

Boillon arrived in Tunis last week to replace the previous French ambassador, Pierre Menat, who was recalled to Paris during the uprising after serving just over a year in the post.

Boillon, a 41-year-old Arabic speaker, is a former adviser to conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy and was previously posted in Iraq.

Tunisia was once a French protectorate, and after the North African nation secured its independence in 1956, its leaders remained close to French authorities.

Some critics have complained that Sarkozy was slow to speak out in favor of the protesters during the uprising that sent Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.

Meanwhile, the state news agency TAP reported that Tunisia's interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, signed an amnesty decree, that could see the release of people imprisoned under Ben Ali's anti-terrorism laws, laws limiting press freedom and laws that restricted public demonstrations.

Ridha Belhaj, an adviser to the prime minister, didn't specify how many people could be affected. But lawyer Samir Ben Amor estimated more than 2,500 could be freed under the anti-terrorism law alone that he called anti-constitutional.