February 19, 2011 / 4:49 PM / in 8 years

Tunisia signs amnesty for political prisoners

* Amnesty is step towards elections

* Rights groups estimate 1,000 political prisoners held

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Tunisia’s interim president Fouad Mebazza signed a general amnesty for political prisoners on Saturday in a move to smooth the way to elections this year, state media said.

The amnesty was promised less than a week after a wave of protests forced former leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country in mid-January, but had not yet been ratified.

“The government is hoping that this law will finally end an era of repression and provide the right conditions for the election,” the state media report said.

Human rights groups estimate Tunisia has about 1,000 political prisoners following Ben Ali’s 23 years in power, during which he outlawed an opposition Islamist movement and cracked down on dissenters.

Tunisia’s Islamists have since shown signs of organising, with protests forcing authorities to shut at least three brothels in the country and many residents fearing an attempt to impose Islamist rule.

Some 15,000 anti-Islamist demonstrators clogged the main street of the capital Tunis on Saturday, a day after the government announced extremists had killed a priest.

The main Islamist group Ennahda issued a communique condemning the violence.

Many Tunisian families have been waiting for weeks for the release of relatives, with many camping out outside the main prisons.

The government so far has released some 3,000 people imprisoned by the Ben Ali regime, though most are believed to have been petty criminals serving over-long sentences, as opposed to being political prisoners.

Writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Michael Roddy

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