Tunisian Court Drops Case at Heart of Protests

April 19, 2011 - 9:27 AM

Tunis, Tunisia (AP) - A Tunisian court dropped charges Tuesday against a policewoman whose dispute with a fruit vendor sparked a chain of events that unleashed uprisings around the Arab world.

The state news agency TAP says the case against Fedia Hamdi was closed after the vendor's family withdrew its original complaint. The family says it acted in a gesture of tolerance and an effort to heal wounds suffered in Tunisia's upheaval of recent months.

The case was at the heart of what has become a season of protests against autocratic leaders stretching across Arab lands from Yemen to Morocco.

The police officer was accused of slapping vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi's wares were confiscated on the ground that he didn't have a permit.

Humiliated, Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze in front of the governor's office on Dec. 17. He died on Jan. 5 of full-body burns he suffered in the protest.

"All the money in the world can't replace the loss of Mohamed who sacrificed himself for freedom and for dignity," his brother, Salem Bouazizi, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We are proud of him."

Horrified residents had staged a demonstration in support of Bouazizi's act, an unusual eruption of public defiance in a country known for its political stability and sandy beaches -- and where dissent was routinely quashed.

That demonstration spawned others by Tunisians angry over unemployment, corruption and repression. Police fired at protesters, fanning the anger, and the movement spread around the country. On Jan. 14, longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee.

Pro-democracy protests quickly erupted in several Arab countries. An uprising forced Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to step down less than a month later, and an armed rebellion is currently challenging Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Faouzi Hamdi, the brother of the accused police officer, claims his sister never slapped Bouazizi and said the decision to throw out the case underscores the fact that in the new Tunisia the judicial system "is now independent."

The Tunisian court decision comes as the country is struggling to build a new democracy and rebuild its economy. It is being watched closely by other Arab countries facing protests of their own.

Since the overthrow of Ben Ali, thousands of Tunisians have left their country and attempted the dangerous trip across the choppy Mediterranean in old fishing boats.

Tunisia's interim government is appealing for patience, saying it needs time to put in place an ambitious economic development plan.