Tunis court toughens verdicts of US embassy attackers

Tunisian Justice Minister Nadhir Ben Ammou during a press conference on May 31, 2013, in Tunis (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

Tunis (AFP) - Tunisia's appeals court handed harsher sentences Wednesday to 20 men for participating in a 2012 attack on the US embassy, after the initial ruling was deemed too lenient.

In May 2013, they were all given two-year suspended sentences for sacking the diplomatic mission, as well as the American school, in protest at an online US-made film that mocked Islam.

That verdict was denounced by the United States, with the embassy saying it was "deeply disturbed," and it was also condemned by then justice minister Nadhir Ben Ammou.

Ben Ammou said he sympathised with the US response to the "lenient" sentences and announced that the public prosecutor's office had lodged an appeal.

On Wednesday, the court handed down prison terms of two to four years, spokesman Karim Chebbi told AFP.

Twelve people were sentenced in their absence to four years, seven to two years and one to two and a half years, Chebbi said.

The appeal trial opened Tuesday after repeated delays, with only six defendants present in court.

Chebbi said the 12 tried in absentia could request a retrial, while the other eight could appeal to a higher court.

A wave of violence erupted across the Muslim world in September 2012, when the film mocking Islam was published on the Internet.

In Tunis, hundreds of angry Islamists stormed the US embassy and torched the neighbouring American school, with police spending hours trying to bring the situation under control.

Four assailants were killed in the incident and dozens wounded.

Tunisian authorities have blamed the radical Salafist group Ansar Ashariaa of masterminding the attack.

The group is now blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.

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