Thousands of lawyers in Tunisia went on strike Thursday, a week after a police crackdown on demonstrations they staged in support of protestors against unemployment in the tightly-controlled country.
Trade unionists said strikes, protests, even attempted suicides also took place in other parts of the country.
Street protests by students, professionals and youths angry at a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms have grown into the most widespread flare-up of popular dissent in President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule.
The protests were triggered last month when a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, saying he was driven to the act by police who had seized his fruit and vegetable cart over a permit.
His self-immolation was embraced as a cause celebre by jobless graduates, trade unionists and human right activists. Protests spread to other towns including the capital Tunis.
The man, Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, died on Tuesday of his burns. Demonstrations had tapered off last week but resumed on Wednesday after his burial.
Three eyewitnesses in Sidi Bouzid said a woman had climbed an electric pole after Bouazizi's burial and threatened to commit suicide with her three children in protest against poor living conditions. Officials persuaded her to abandon the idea.
In the western town of Thala, police used water cannons to disperse protesters. Many of the demonstrators were students, some of whom pelted police with firebombs, witnesses said. The protesters demanded that the police force leave the town and release people detained during the protests.
Authorities later ordered the closure of schools and colleges in Thala until further notice, said representatives of the teachers' union there. Government officials could not immediately comment on these accounts.
In Tunis, lawyers in robes gathered at the main courthouse on Bab Bnet Avenue, where a strong force of police stood guard but did not intervene.
The national council had called the strike after lawyers across the country staged actions on New Year's Eve in support of residents of Sidi Bouzid, a centre of mass protests against unemployment since December 19.
The council last week condemned the "unprecedented" use of force to "silence the lawyers who are determined to defend freedom of expression and the rights of Sidi Bouzid and other regions that are devoid of jobs and dignity."
Lawyers were "beaten, chased and insulted" in Tunis, Grombalia, Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia, Gafsa et Jendouba. One lawyer had his nose broken and another had an eye seriously injured, the council said.
Abderrazek Kilani, Chairman of the Bar, told Reuters 95 percent of Tunisia's 8,000 lawyers had joined the strike, called in protest against beatings they received from police at sit-ins in Tunis and other towns last week.
"The strike carries a clear message that we do not accept unjustified attacks on lawyers," he said. "We want to strongly protest against the beating of lawyers in the past few days."
Government officials could not immediately comment.
Apart from Bouazizi, three people are reported to have died in the unrest. Two civilians were killed last month when police fired to quell rioters in the southern town of Bouziane.
According to media reports, a jobless graduate also killed himself by clinging to a high-voltage electric cable to protest against "misery and unemployment".
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