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Monday, 27 May, 2002, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Win confirms Tunisia leader in power
Voting in Tunis
This was Tunisia's first referendum
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has won a sweeping victory in a referendum on constitutional changes which could help him stay in power for a fourth term.

The Interior Ministry said more than 99% of people had voted to abolish the three-term limit for incumbent presidents and raise the age limit of a sitting president from 70 to 75.

President Ben Ali casts his vote
Opponents fear Mr Ben Ali could stay in power for life
The president was due to retire in 2004 after 15 years in office but the proposed constitutional amendments will allow him to stand for a further two terms.

Opposition figures and human rights groups called the results a sham.

Souheir Belhassen, vice-president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, dismissed the referendum as a "masquerade".

"But the masquerade became indecent because even in the craziest dictatorial regimes one dares not announce such figures," she told the Reuters news agency.

Mr Ben Ali has said the referendum is about democratic reform, including a second parliamentary chamber and better human rights protection.

But human rights groups speak of a climate of fear in Tunisia, with dissent quickly squashed.

President-for-life

Mr Ben Ali, a 65-year-old former general, took power in a bloodless coup in 1987 after declaring his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, senile.

Two years ago he was re-elected to what, under the current rules, would have been his third and last term.

In that poll he took 99.4% of the vote and opponents accuse him of resurrecting the presidency-for-life system, which he came to power vowing to abolish.


The masquerade became indecent because even in the craziest dictatorial regimes one dares not announce such figures

Souheir Belhassen
Human Rights League
Tunisia is a prosperous, secular state, which welcomes thousands of Western holiday-makers every year.

But human rights groups say it is also a state which has around 1,000 political prisoners.

One government official acknowledged to the BBC that the country's human rights record was not perfect, but he argued that most of the prisoners were Islamic radicals.

He said President Ben Ali had taken the necessary steps to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

See also:

02 Oct 01 | Middle East
27 Sep 01 | Middle East
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
30 Jul 00 | Middle East
02 Feb 01 | Country profiles
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