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31.05.2013 Tunisia

Tunisia to appeal US embassy attack sentences

Smoke rises from burning vehicles outside the US embassy in Tunis during a protest on September 14, 2012.  By Fethi Belaid (AFP/File)Smoke rises from burning vehicles outside the US embassy in Tunis during a protest on September 14, 2012. By Fethi Belaid (AFP/File)

TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisian prosecutors are to appeal the "lenient" suspended jail sentences handed down against 20 people for their roles in an attack on the US embassy last year, the justice minister said on Friday.

Washington had said it was "deeply troubled" by the sentences.

"The public prosecutor's office has lodged an appeal," said Justice Minister Nadhir Ben Ammou.

"We understand the reaction of the United States given that they were the injured party, that the damage was huge and that the sentences were lenient."

A court in Tunis on Tuesday gave 20 people two-year suspended prison sentences for taking part in the attack on the embassy that the Tunisian government has blamed on the radical Salafist movement.

The trial lasted just half a day, and the verdict was given that night.

The main charges against the suspects, which included premeditated attacks organised by an armed gang, carried sentences ranging from five years in jail to possible death penalties.

The following day, the embassy sharply criticised the verdict, saying the government had failed to demonstrate its opposition to the use of violence.

"We are deeply troubled by reports of suspended sentences. The verdicts do not correspond appropriately to the extent and severity of the damage and violence that took place on September 14, 2012," it said.

"The government of Tunisia has publicly stated its opposition to those that use violence.

"Through its actions, the government of Tunisia must also demonstrate that there is no tolerance for those that encourage and use violence to meet their objectives. The May 28 decision fails in this regard," the embassy added.

The justice minister stressed on Friday that the appeal decision had been taken "even before the publication of the embassy statement," which some have criticised as an attempt to interfere in Tunisia's affairs.

Ben Ammou said the sentences were "contrary to the law."

Hundreds of angry Islamist protesters attacked the US mission in Tunis last September after an American-made film mocking their religion was published on the Internet, unleashing a wave of violence across the Muslim world.

Four of the assailants were killed and dozens wounded in the violence, which saw protesters storm the embassy and torch a neighbouring American school.

Tunisia's Islamist-led government has accused the radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, led by a former Al-Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan known as Abu Iyadh, of orchestrating the attack.

Abu Iyadh, whose real name is Saif Allah Bin Hussein, has been on the run from the police since September, and none of the movement's leaders have been prosecuted for the attack, although around 80 people are still awaiting trial.

Tunisia has been rocked by waves of violence blamed on hardline Islamists since the 2011 revolution that overthrew the Ben Ali regime.

The coalition government, led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, has been strongly criticised for failing to rein in the extremists and prevent the violence, although it has taken a tougher stand in recent months, faced with the discovery of Al-Qaeda-linked groups along the border with Algeria.

In early May, one person was killed and about 20 wounded in clashes between police and Ansar al-Sharia supporters.