Tunis - Opposition groups on Thursday raised the alarm over Tunisia's transition to democracy after parliament passed an amnesty law for officials accused of corruption under toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The law passed on Wednesday evening after a rowdy debate in parliament, coming in the wake of a cabinet reshuffle that saw Ben Ali-era officials join the cabinet as ministers of finance and education.
The reshuffle was seen as strengthening President Beji Caid Essebsi's grip on power months ahead of Tunisia's first post-revolution municipal polls.
Tunisia has been seen as a model of democratic transition since Ben Ali was overthrown in a 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
But Monica Marks, an expert on Tunisian politics, said the law's passage was "a huge symbolic victory for impunity".
"It signals a green light, from the top of Tunisia's state institutions, to individuals engaged in abuses of power," she said.
Proposed by Essebsi in mid-2015, the bill grants an amnesty to businesspeople and Ben Ali officials on trial for corruption, in exchange for returning ill-gotten money plus paying a fine.
In the face of growing public anger, the text was revised to cover only officials accused of involvement in administrative corruption, not those who received bribes.
The presidency defended the law, saying it was needed to protect the economy and "free up the energies" of the government.
The law applies to around 2 000 senior officials "who did not receive any bribes", cabinet director Selim Azzabi said, adding it would affect people who "received instructions and applied them without profiting" under the dictatorship.
He said the law could boost Tunisia's sluggish economic growth.
Opposition and civil society groups have rejected that argument, saying the legislation grants impunity while corruption remains endemic.
Some say it could even represent a return to authoritarian practices.
Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch said the law "risks perpetuating practices inherited from the old regime" and places the young democracy on a "bad slope".
Activists planned a demonstration against the law on Thursday evening, and several lawmakers have already prepared an appeal on the grounds it was unconstitutional.
Several officials have pointed out the "contradiction" between the law and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed's months-old "war on corruption".
His party, Nidaa Tounes, which includes members of the former regime, welcomed the adoption of the law.
The new legislation "paves the way for a new stage in the history of Tunisia, that of reconciliation and union", said the party, which was founded by President Essebsi in the wake of the revolution.
Its partner in government, the Islamist movement Ennahdha, said it had supported the bill in favour of the "national interest".
Marks said Ennahdha had "prioritised the preservation of its governing alliance with Nidaa".
"Ultimately, Ennahdha - despite being the party most persecuted by the old regime, including old regime officials likely to be amnestied by the Reconciliation Law - ironically ensured its passage," she said.
Leftwing lawmaker Ahmed Seddik called for the public to be vigilant".
"Tomorrow, those who have committed crimes against you, who have stolen your money, we will find them in the highest positions as if there had been no revolution," he said.