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Tunisia's new government to investigate ex-president's financial dealings

Calm returns to the country and newly sworn-in officials pledge to release political prisoners of former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali's regime and to hold free elections in six months.

January 20, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — Tunisia's transitional government on Wednesday began to redress alleged financial and political abuses of the deposed ruler and his family as a measure of calm returned to a country roiled less than a week ago by a popular uprising.

Newly sworn-in officials launched an investigation into the financial dealings of former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who fled the country Friday. They also have taken steps to address some of the human rights abuses during Ben Ali's 23-year-reign, announcing the release of 1,800 political prisoners.

"I want to make a judicial inquiry to arrest everyone who used the state to enrich themselves," interim President Fouad Mebazaa said in a televised news conference.

"We believe in Tunisia and we will write a new page in history to make a future where the nation will prevail," he said. "We will realize all the wishes of the people, by letting them choose their own government in elections that will be a complete break with the past and by releasing all political opponents."

A provisional government that says it is dedicated to building a modern democracy promises free elections in six months.

The public prosecutor on Wednesday announced a probe of real estate, stock market and foreign holdings of Ben Ali, his wife, Leila, and other relatives, according to the official TAP news agency. France, Germany and Switzerland also announced moves to freeze the assets of Ben Ali's family, officials in Europe announced.

Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia after his regime repressed weeks of protests at the loss of at least 78 lives.

The interim cabinet is scheduled to hold its first meeting Thursday, with bills offering general amnesty to persons convicted of political crimes and to separate the state from political parties on the agenda, TAP reported.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said in an interview with the Al Arabiya news channel that people who have been denied the ability to leave the country would be granted passports. Authorities in the Arab world and Iran often forbid political dissidents from traveling abroad as punishment.

In the capital and other cities, hundreds of demonstrators loudly voiced their opposition to the inclusion of figures from the former regime, including Mebazaa and Ghannouchi, in the transitional cabinet. But in contrast to previous days, the gatherings were relatively peaceful. Police officers stood aside and let demonstrators chant slogans and wave banners. Authorities felt confident enough about security to push the starting time of the overnight curfew from 6 to 8 p.m.

Many cafes and shops reopened, though a significant number remained shuttered. The interior minister has said that the crisis has cost the nation more than $2 billion in lost revenue. Moody's and other bond rating agencies have downgraded Tunisia's debt over the political volatility, TAP reported.

But many Tunisians have shrugged off the costs of the uprising.

"This 'crisis' is not a pejorative in this case," said Achou Bel Sana, president of the Tunisian Assn. of Democratic Women, a civil society group. "Tunisia is giving birth not only to a different government but to something new: a democracy by a popular revolution."

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Sihem Hassaini contributed to this report.

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