The death of two detained Salafists on hunger strike has caused a dilemma for the Tunisian government, which is under pressure to rein in the radical Islamists but is also accused of killing the two protesters.
The dilemma is only likely to worsen, with more than 100 people in detention now refusing food until they are released - Salafists as well as common criminals - raising the possibility of more “martyrs” in the near future.
Supporters of Bechir Gholli and Mohammed Bakhti, who died last week after refusing food since late September when they were arrested over a deadly attack on the US embassy in Tunis, accuse the authorities of “assassination.”
Bakhti was a prominent figure in Tunisia's resurgent Salafist movement, blamed for numerous acts of violence since the revolution in January last year that culminated in the attack on the US mission on September 14.
More than 100 people were detained following the attack, with Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that heads the ruling coalition, vowing to crack down on the hardliners after being sharply criticised for failing to stop them.
Bakhti and Gholli died protesting against “arbitrary justice,” their fellow Islamists say.
“These two young men, who were among Tunisia's best, were victims of premeditated assassination,” Anouar Laroussi, a Salafist who was released from prison after being temporarily detained, told Mosaique FM radio.
“How can you speak of suicide when this strike was to denounce an arbitrary arrest?” added Laroussi, who observed a hunger strike himself while he was in prison.
Gholli's brother Raouf insisted the two men were “martyrs.”
“They were killed slowly. The whole world, starting with the government, is to blame.”
Ennahda said it regretted their deaths, and has called for an inquiry, but it rejected accusations that it was responsible.
The party's veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi tried to discourage those going without food by saying that if such a protest led to a person's death, that person was committing a “sin.”
The government, meanwhile, has acknowledged the seriousness of the ongoing hunger strike, with the justice ministry on Monday describing the situation of some of those taking part as “worrying.”
But it also underlined its determination to uphold the rule of law, saying that it would not bow to “blackmail,” nor would it force feed the strikers.
“This campaign risks spreading to all the prisoners. Freeing the strikers would amount to overriding the law,” said senior ministry official Fadhel Saihi, stressing the importance of upholding the independence of the courts.
Under the Malta Declaration adopted by the World Medical Association, “forced feeding is never acceptable,” he added, even in a case where the hunger striker's life is in danger.
Saihi said the ministry was willing to improve the conditions of detention, “in order to confront the problem, to find a solution and to preserve these people's lives.”
But lawyers representing the Salafist detainees have indicated that no compromise is imminent.
“They must free all those arrested who belong to the movement,” said lawyer Seif Eddine Makhlouf.
The Salafists, who adhere to an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam, say around 900 fellow hardliners have been arrested since the uprising that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - a figure denied by the justice ministry.
Meanwhile, a number of rights groups took part in a trip organised by the justice ministry to one of the prisons on Monday, which appears to have galvanised the hunger strikers, according to Saihi.
“We involved civil society, and now the (strikers) are more determined than ever. They think this visit was the result of their action,” he said. - Sapa-AFP