TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s parliament on Wednesday debated a bill that would grant amnesty to businessmen accused of corruption during the rule of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali - a bill already delayed two years by popular opposition.
The bill would protect from prosecution those accused of corruption; in exchange, they would be required to return the money they extracted.
Government officials see the “economic reconciliation” law as a way to inject funds into an economy still recovering after the 2011 revolt that ousted Ben Ali. But critics are calling for protests over what they call an amnesty for criminals.
The bill was proposed by President Beji Caid Essebsi, himself a former Ben Ali official, and sent to parliament in 2015. Debate was postponed after criticism that the bill benefited business elites tied to the government.
“We are discussing a project under pressure because it provokes debate,” said Sana Mersni, a lawmaker from the Islamist Ennahda party. “But any controversy must be in parliament, which has the final word. This is democracy.”
Despite consensus between secular and Islamist parties that helped their transition, the bill has divided Tunisians between those who want to close the past and those who say they cannot tolerate corruption in the new Tunisia.
Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has been held up by Western partners as a model of democracy for the region. Economic progress has lagged, though, and corruption remains a major problem.
Officials say they hope the law will revive the economy with billions of dollars and give a positive signal to investors.
Ruling coalition parties, including Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, hold more than 150 seats in the 217-seat Congress. Ennahda, part of the ruling coalition, also supports the bill.
The draft law allows businessmen to reveal stolen funds and repay them at a rate of interest not exceeding 5 percent. It will be debated in committee and go to a plenary session next month.
Essebsi said this month that hundreds of employees who just carried out orders without gaining personally will be included in the reconciliation bill.
But the opposition and some rights groups reject it as a normalization of corruption, one of the grievances that drove Tunisians to oust Ben Ali six years ago.
An activist group called “We will not forgive” vowed to take to the streets until the law was dropped. Some Tunisians changed profiles on social media to a “It will not pass” image.
“This project is very dangerous for the revolution’s values, it is like thanks from the president to businessmen who supported him in the presidential campaign,” said Charfeddine Kellil, a lawyer and activist.
Tunisia’s powerful UGTT trade union, once a key political arbitrator, called on the presidency to wait and open dialogue, saying the country does not need more unrest with protests over jobs hitting several cities.
“The situation in the country requires this reconciliation,” Nidaa Tounes leader Mohsen Hassen said. “This reconciliation will include about 400 businessmen and employees, which will help investment again and solve some economic problems.”
Reporting By Tarek Amara; editing by Patrick Markey, Larry King