Slap that was heard across Arab world "didn't happen"

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia Tue Apr 19, 2011 5:46pm EDT

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SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (Reuters) -They called it the "slap heard around the Arab world." And it never happened.

Or so said on Tuesday the Tunisian policewoman who was accused of hitting a young man in the face four months ago, prompting him to set himself alight and triggering a chain reaction of popular anger against Arab police states that has since unseated two dictators and caused others to tremble.

"I'm innocent. I did not slap him," Fadia Hamdi, the 36-year-old policewoman, told a court in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid before the judge dismissed the case and freed her.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable seller who felt so aggrieved by Hamdi's treatment of him that he set himself on fire, forgave the policewoman in a spirit of "reconciliation" and dropped the complaint against her.

Hamdi's lawyer said she had been made a scapegoat by deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had her jailed as he fought to appease the protests triggered by Bouazizi's death.

Three months after Ben Ali's flight from Tunis, Hamdi's acquittal provoked jubilation among her friends and Tunisia's state news agency TAP declared the ruling a proof of judicial independence and a "break with the old regime."

Manoubia, the mother of Bouazizi whose name has been on the lips of millions who marched to overthrow Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, told the court according to TAP: "I leave things in God's hands. For me, it is enough that Mohamed's martyrdom has resulted in freedom and the fall of tyrants."

Since Mubarak's departure from Cairo in February, marking the high point of the "Arab Spring" movement in the most populous Arab state, authoritarian rulers have held their own.

In Syria on Tuesday, President Bashar al-Assad's government agreed to end half a century of "emergency law" in a bid to appease demonstrators whose actions over the past month the Syrian ruler has met with a combination of concessions and force -- more than 200 have been killed.

Protests continued after the announcement, with demonstrators taking to the streets in the city of Banias and opposition leaders said they would not stop until their other demands, including the release of political prisoners, freedom of speech, and a multi-party system, were also met.

"This is all just talk. The protests won't stop until all the demands are met or the regime is gone," leading opposition figure Haitham Maleh, an 80-year-old former judge, told Reuters.

The cabinet decision came hours after activists said Syrian forces opened fire to disperse protesters in the central city of Homs, where 17 people were killed on Sunday night.

And hours after the bill to lift law was passed, Syrian police arrested opposition figure Mahmoud Issa, rights campaigners said.

Rights activists also said at least three more protesters were shot dead in the latest shooting early on Tuesday. State news agency SANA said that four people, two policemen and two gunmen, were killed in clashes in the city.

In Yemen, police opened fire on protesters in Sanaa and Taiz, killing at least three people, as protesters tried to escalate their campaign to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule.

The clashes came as Gulf mediators tried to bring government and opposition leaders together for talks on a presidential transfer of power in the poor, strategically located Arab state, a key battleground in the U.S.-led fight against al Qaeda.

Two people died and nearly 100 were hit by bullets when riot police stopped protesters marching toward Sanaa's main Zubeiri street, near the home of vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, medic Mohammed Qobati said.

Protesters stoned the riot police and set fire to a security vehicle, witnesses said. Al Jazeera television showed medics tending to dozens of wounded covered in blood.

The U.N. Security Council was due to meet late in the day to discuss the situation in Yemen, where Western and Gulf Arab allies fear a prolonged standoff could lead to clashes between rival military units in Sanaa and elsewhere.

Fighting continued in Libya, where an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi began two months ago. Despite the intervention of NATO air forces on the side of the rebels, the country now appears in stalemate, with Gaddafi's forces penning the rebels in the east and besieging the western port of Misrata. The United Nations appealed for a ceasefire in the city, saying at least 20 children had been killed in attacks by besieging government forces on rebel-held parts of the city.

At the same time Western powers are looking for ways to support the rebels' efforts to topple Gaddafi, though NATO said there were limits to what air power could do to end the siege.

Britain said it would send military officers to advise the rebels on organization and communications, but not to train or arm fighters. France said the West had underestimated Gaddafi's ability to adapt his tactics in response to the NATO operation.

(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tunis, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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