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Dissident Crackdown Feared In Wake of Tunisia Bombing

Tunisian activists say they fear a recent explosion outside of North Africa's oldest synagogue will lead to a tougher crackdown on dissidents in Tunisia. They made their remarks to reporters at a recent United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.

Eighteen people died when a fuel truck exploded outside the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. Most of those killed were German tourists.

Tunisia calls the incident a premeditated suicide bombing by the truck's driver, a Tunisian who lived in France.

Sihem Bensedrine of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia says she believes authorities will now strike out against opposition figures, and she fears the attack will be used to justify a clampdown on human rights activists. She alleges that Tunisian authorities want to increase repression and have the West's blessing because they are fighting anti-Semitism.

The rights group Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the synagogue attack in accordance with international human rights standards. Amnesty's researcher on Tunisia, Jerome Bellion-Jourdan, said the human rights group fears a backlash.

"Political opponents or human rights defenders on a regular basis are subjected to harassment, police surveillance, sometimes they are subjected to police brutality," he said. "So Tunisia really remains a country where Amnesty International has strong concerns, and we have been calling for more than a decade now on the authorities to show some kind of improvement in this situation, and so far very little has been done."

Nadia Nasraoui is a lawyer in Tunisia and the wife of the jailed leader of the banned Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, Hamma Hammami. She said the Tunisian government has taken on even greater powers after September 11 to crush dissidents in the name of anti-terrorism.

"In Tunisia, when you are an opponent you go to prison and you have no rights. Perhaps if there is solidarity, if newspapers speak in other countries about your situation, you can have some few rights," she said. "But if not, they never respect. It is a regime that never respects human rights or liberties. So the prisoners are in very bad conditions."

Amnesty International says that up to one-thousand political prisoners are in Tunisian jails, and some have been detained for more than a decade. The organization says that arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture are among the routine human rights abuses taking place in Tunisia.