Tunisian rioters detained after attacks blamed on ultra-conservative Islamists will be charged under anti-terror legislation, the government said Tuesday as it declared a nighttime curfew.
“The people arrested will be brought to justice under the anti-terror law decreed in 2003,” a ministry official told reporters the day after a wave of unrest that left 100 injured including 65 policemen, and led to 165 arrests.
The ultra-conservative Salafists denied involvement in the rampage in several areas of the capital Tunis and in the country’s northwest, and instead called a protest after this week’s Friday prayers.
The unrest continued on Tuesday, and authorities declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew in eight regions, including the greater Tunis region, of the north African country that sparked the Arab Spring revolts.
Police fired tear gas to quell attacks allegedly by Salafists and others who torched and pillaged a local court in western Tunis and attacked several police stations in the north, ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche said.
In particular, rioters tried to force their way into an art gallery in the northern Tunis suburb of La Marsa, where several paintings deemed “blasphemous” had been slashed overnight Sunday. Seven officers were slightly injured.
Justice Minister Nourredine Bhiri condemned the “terrorist act” and pledged that the guilty would “pay a heavy price.”
“These are terrorist groups which have lost control, they are isolated in society,” Bhiri told radio Shems FM.
Tuesday saw attacks on the headquarters of a fine arts institute in eastern Sousse and that of a centrist opposition party in southern Tatatouine, the TAP news agency reported.
Later in the afternoon, Salafists gathered in Sousse’s central square to denounce the artworks at the La Marsa gallery.
National mufti Othmane Batikh said the works contained “symbolic representations that offend the sacred in Islam.”
Calling on Tunisia’s constituent assembly to pass legislation against blaspheming Islam, he added: “The sacred symbols of Islam are red lines that must not be crossed.”
The violence has fueled fears among moderate Tunisians over the rise of radicalism since a revolution last year toppled the Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime and elections ushered in a moderate Islamist government -- and whether that government will be able to stamp it out.
In what appeared to be a concession to the Salafists, the dominant Ennahda party announced that it would propose a constitutional provision against blasphemy.
“Religious symbols are above all derision, irony or violation,” said the party, which has 89 seats out of 217 in Tunisia’s post-revolution constituent assembly.
And later on Tuesday, Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk said he would lodge a complaint for blasphemy against the organisers of exhibition in La Marsa titled “Spring of the Arts.”
He said the works in question amounted to “artistic provocation” and that the organizers had failed to respect their “moral and juridical commitments.”
A radical imam, Abou Ayoub, said in a video circulated on Facebook: “The Muslim population must rise up Friday after prayers in response to those who mock Islam.”
“Since the fall of Ben Ali, the infidels have not stopped mocking our religion, and it’s becoming more frequent every day,” said Ayoub, who had called in October 2011 for attacks against television station Nessma after it broadcast the French-Iranian animated film “Persepolis”.
Commentators said the overnight unrest started just two days after al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Tunisians to demand the imposition of Sharia, or Muslim religious law.
Others suspected a plot by Ben Ali sympathizers to destabilize the country and reclaim power.
“The fact that the violence erupted in several places at the same time makes us think that it was organized,” said Tarrouche.
Several people arrested said they “were paid by Salafists to carry out the acts of destruction,” security sources quoted by TAP said.
The Salafist movement comprises several branches. Some adherents focus strictly on religion, some are politicians and others are jihadists who see violence as a legitimate means to impose their faith.
Researchers put Salafist numbers in Tunisia at around 10,000.