By Tarek Amara
Tunis (Reuters) - Tunisia's human rights situation may have improved since the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year but torture and violent repression persist, international investigators said on Friday.
Rights officials from the United Nations and the African Union concluded a visit to the country with a call on the government to act against violators, that include members of the police and hardline Islamist groups.
"Most people we have met during our visit noted an overall improvement of the situation of humans rights defenders compared to before the revolution," Margaret Sekaggya, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, told a news conference.
But she added: "We observed several human rights violations, including attacks against journalists, artists and activists, torture, threats by conservative Islamic groups known as Salafists and excessive use of force against demonstrators by police."
The comments are a mixed message for President Moncef Marzouki, a rights activist elected head of state last December, and the Islamist-led government which has pledged to respect human rights and ensure proper treatment of prisoners.
"We observed many cases of torture, including the death of a man under torture in a police station last month, but we cannot say it's systematic or more frequent than during the reign of former president," said Reine Alapini Gansou, the African Union's human rights rapporteur.
Opposition figures, artists and journalists say they have been beaten by conservative Islamist Salafi groups over recent months and that authorities had failed to act.
The government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, denies turning a blind eye to such incidents. Officials acknowledge the continued occurrence of human rights abuses but blames individual actions rather than any systematic problem.
Last month, Tunisia's Organisation Against Torture said dozens of prisoners had been tortured since the revolution, allegations which the group said could hinder efforts to secure the extradition of Ben Ali loyalists who fled abroad.
(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)