Tunisia going soft on Islamist attacks on secularists: HRW

TUNIS Mon Oct 15, 2012 12:41pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia is failing to crack down on Islamist violence against advocates of secularism including journalists and artists, and risks encouraging more attacks, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

Tunisia, where an uprising against secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali sparked last year's "Arab Spring" revolts, is now ruled by an Islamist-led government.

Liberals say ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists threaten human rights in a country once seen as a beacon of Arab secularism.

There have been at least a dozen attacks by groups of Salafis on proponents of secularism in the past 10 months. The victims included newspaper journalist Ziad Krishan and poet Aouled Ahmed, both known for their criticism of Islamist radicals, who were badly beaten.

Salafis were arrested after many of the attacks but were released soon after without charge, leading to accusations from opposition politicians that authorities were turning a blind eye to the violence.

"Attackers have beaten people, apparently for their ideas, the way they dress, or their activities," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"The failure of Tunisian authorities to investigate these attacks entrenches the religious extremists' impunity and may embolden them to commit more violence," he added in a statement.

The government was not available for comment on Monday but has previously said that all Tunisians are treated equally by the law.

Salafis led an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis last month in which four people died, after an anti-Islam film made in California caused anger across the region.

Abu Ayoub, a Salafi leader, is due to be tried on Wednesday on charges of disturbing public security and incitement to violence, including over the embassy attack.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Pravin Char and Kevin Liffey)

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