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Rights groups say 1,000 arrested in Tunisia protests


Activists say many arrests made ‘arbitrary’ including of people who were taken from inside their homes.

Tunisian security forces have arrested at least 1,000 people during six nights of protests, human rights and other non-government groups said.

The North African country, where the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened already acute economic pain, has seen youths hurl rocks and petrol bombs at police who have deployed tear gas and water cannon at the crowds.

Wednesday night was relatively calm compared with previous evenings, although local media reported disturbances in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings started 10 years ago.

Authorities said on Monday they made 600 arrests, then reported another 70 over the following two days. But a coalition of Tunisian groups said their own count was now much higher.

“There are 1,000 people arrested” including many minors, said Bassem Trifi of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, who added that many arrests had been “arbitrary”, including of people inside their homes.

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“Some were arrested without having taken part in the demonstrations,” he told a joint news conference of a dozen groups on Thursday.

Tunisian protesters shout slogan during an anti-government demonstration on the Habib Bourguiba avenue in the capital Tunis, on January 20 [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Some activists had been arrested for voicing support for the protests on Facebook and other websites, and at least one of them now faces six years in prison if convicted, the groups said.

“We are asking the justice system to look closely into the cases,” said Trifi. “We will not manage to resolve the crisis in this way. It can only deepen the gulf between the people and the government.”

‘Rejection of the state’

In a statement, the groups called on the judicial system to investigate reports of violations by security forces, ill-treatment of detainees and breaches of their personal data privacy.

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They warned that “violent security practices would only … aggravate the crisis of the rejection of the state”.

Unrest again shook several towns overnight into Thursday, though the clashes appeared to ease from their earlier peaks when angry groups set fire to tyres to block streets.

In the central town of Sbeitla, clashes broke out following rumours that a young man had died of injuries he had sustained when he was earlier hit by a tear gas canister.

The interior ministry denied the man’s death, saying he had been transferred to a hospital in the coastal city of Sousse, and that it had opened an investigation into his case.

Ongoing economic woes

Last week, Tunisia marked 10 years since its longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country amid mass protests, ending his 23 years in power.

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The demonstrations were sparked by the self-immolation of young fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, triggering similar revolts across much of North Africa and the Middle East.

Ten years on from the revolution, many Tunisians are increasingly angered by poor public services and a political class that has repeatedly proved unable to govern coherently.

Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 9 percent last year, consumer prices have skyrocketed, and one-third of young people are unemployed.

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