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Tunisian Appeals Court Hands Down Harsher Sentences to 2012 US Embassy Attackers

The US had criticized an earlier verdict for its leniency towards those involved in protests over the US-made film Innocence of Muslims.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Feb 19 2015, 11:54pm

A Tunisian appeals court sentenced 20 men accused of carrying out a 2012 attack against the US embassy in Tunis to up to four years in jail — a verdict that overturns an earlier ruling from 2013, in which the men were given two-year suspended sentences.

Twelve of the defendants were sentenced in absentia to four years in prison, while those who were there received between two and two and a half years, a spokesperson for the court told AFP. The men who were present in court all denied taking part in the violent protests.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tunis in September 2012 to voice their fury over US-made anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims. Protesters stormed the US embassy and set fire to the neighboring American school. Four demonstrators died in the clashes, and around 40 people were wounded, including 20 police officers.

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After the first ruling was criticized by many as being too lenient. The US had strongly criticized the verdict, saying it was "profoundly disturbed" with the outcome. Tunisia's then-justice minister Nadhir Ben Ammou also condemned the ruling.

The attack in the Tunisian capital came just days after a deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. The attack was initially reported as being a spontaneous popular uprising triggered by the controversial video, but subsequent investigations showed Islamist fighters had likely been a premeditated attack.

The film — a small-budget, 14-minute trailer — which was uploaded in July 2012, depicts the prophet Mohammed as a child molester and a thief. Following the posting of the video, violent protests erupted in Egypt, soon spreading to other Muslim nations.

In a statement released Wednesday, the US Department of State said that the new verdict issued by the appeals court reflected "a serious response to the attack," but added it remained "disappointed that justice in this case has been delayed so long and remains incomplete with several key suspects still at large."

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Tunisian authorities have blamed radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia — meaning Advocates of Islamic Law in English — for instigating the attack. The group, which was designated a terrorist organization by the Tunisian and US governments, was formed in 2011 by Islamic militant Abu Ayadh, a political prisoner of the former regime. Radical cleric Ayadh, who was released following the Tunisian revolution and the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's regime in 2011, is wanted by the US for his role in the embassy clashes.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho

Image via Flickr/US Army Africa