Tunisia hands suspended jail terms to 20 people over US embassy attack

TUNIS Wed May 29, 2013 1:11pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian court sentenced 20 people to two-year suspended jail terms for involvement in a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy last year, their lawyer said on Wednesday.

Four people were killed and dozens injured when police opened fire to quell hundreds of protesters who smashed windows, hurled petrol bombs and stones and started fires at the embassy in the capital Tunis last September.

Islamist protesters had targeted the compound over a film made in the United States, which portrayed the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a womaniser. It triggered protests across the Muslim world.

The U.S. embassy said it was "deeply troubled" by the court decision. "The verdicts do not correspond appropriately to the extent and severity of the damage and violence that took place on September 14, 2012," it said in a statement.

"We maintain that a full investigation must be undertaken and those who organised the attack and remain at large should be brought to justice," it said.

The 20 accused had denied attacking the embassy and the police, their lawyer Anouad Awled Ali said. "They all got two-year suspended sentences," he said by phone, adding the verdict was announced late on Tuesday. "We will see if they will want to appeal."

Up until Tuesday, nine were in custody but they have since been released, he said.

Since secular dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in the first "Arab Spring" uprising two years ago, Tunisia has seen mounting strife between secularists and Islamists.

The new government is led by a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, but hardline Islamist Salafists are seeking a broader role for religion, alarming a secular elite which fears this could undermine individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.

(Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Pravin Char)

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