Vocal critic of Islamist-led government gunned down in Tunisia

Vocal critic of Islamist-led government gunned down in Tunisia
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 8:39am

Opposition leader Chokri Belaid routinely received death threats for his frequent, outspoken criticism of Tunisia's Islamist-led government. He talked about the bullying on his frequent television appearances. He said he didn't really fear for his life.

Wednesday morning, a gunman shot and killed Belaid in front of his home as he was leaving for work, according to an eyewitness. Belaid's political allies and even his Islamist opponents are decrying the murder as an assassination.

The killing of Belaid, 48, has shocked the nation. Police had fired on protesters, killing some of them during the Arab Spring uprising, which originated in Tunisia in December 2010. But the targeted slaying of a politician crossed a new line.

Video showed outraged protesters filling the Avenue Habib Bourguiba for the opposition leader's funeral procession and pouring into the streets of other Tunisian cities. Some of them revived the iconic slogan of their revolution, crying: "The people want to topple the regime."

Sympathizers not interested in politics joined them to mourn the popular public figure and express their shock over the violence that has marred the country's heated but otherwise previously peaceful public debate.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, himself an Islamist and head of the moderate religious Ennahda party, quickly condemned the blood letting on state television.

"Belaid was killed but the real target behind the assassination is the Tunisian revolution as a whole," he said of his political adversary. "He represented the true values of dialogue, respecting and embracing others in rejecting violence. This is a political assassination."

But his expression of indignation did not stop angry protesters from storming offices of his Ennahda party, which leads the government coalition.

Belaid's support went beyond his own party. He was the voice of a large coalition of secular opposition parties known as the Popular Front, and had a reputation for decrying violence.

The interior minister joined the chorus of moral indignation, calling the killing "an attack on all Tunisians." Ali al-Areed vowed to track down the killers. At the same time, he asked that protests remain peaceful. "We do not want the country to fall into chaos," he said on Tunisian state TV.

Belaid's family members expressed their sorrow and rage publicly. "We are damned. The political struggle is damned in Tunisia," his wife Basma told Tunisian state TV. "Chokri Belaid sacrificed his soul."

Another relative blamed the prime minister's government for Belaid's killing.

The prime minister called for the accusations to cease.

One of Belaid's neighbors heard the first shot discharge in the quiet Tunis suburb of Menzah 6. He looked out of his apartment to see the gunman fire two more shots at close range.

At least one bullet hit Belaid squarely in the chest, said Dr. Hedi Tebourbi. The physician felt certain he must have died right away.

A man waited close by on a motorbike for the gunman to hop on, Tebourbi said. They sped away from the scene.

An ambulance took Belaid to a nearby hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead.

Journalist Houda Zaghdoudi reported from Tunis. Saad Abedine and Ben Brumfield reported from Atlanta.

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