Though the Tunisian government says protests have dwindled, state authorities continue to arrest hundreds of protesters in the North African country. Last night security forces detained another 150 demonstrators, bringing the number of persons arrested to nearly 800 since anti-austerity demonstrations broke out across the nation Monday night.
"We're concerned about the high number of arrests, some 778 people we understand have now been arrested since Monday, and around a third of those arrested were between the ages of 15 and 20 so very young," says Rupert Colville, a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On behalf of the commission, Colville said, "We call on the authorities to ensure that people are not arrested in an arbitrary manner and that all those detained are treated with full respect for their due process rights and are either charged or promptly released.”
The government’s main opposition, Popular Front, says the current government under prime minister Youssef Chahed is, “reproducing the methods of the oppressive Ben Ali regime”. Party members were arrested in the cities of Mahdia and Karbariya.
The party is rallying for additional protests on Jan. 14 and 20 - marking the seventh anniversary of the national protests that sparked the region’s Arab Spring - under the social media hashtag, #Fech_Nestannew (What are we waiting for?).
Journalists reporting on the protests have also become targets of state officials. Reporters Without Borders, RWB, says that Tunisian police forced local reporter Mathieu Galtier from his home in Tebourba (northern Tunisia) to the police station where they questioned him for an hour before he was released.
“I was very surprised that they came looking for me at my home and I was shocked by the fact that National Guard representatives asked me, in a very explicit and direct manner, for the names of the persons I had talked to in,” added Galtier, who reports for the Paris-based publication, Liberation.
Local reporter, Nadim Bouamoud told RWB that the police took his telephone after he used it to live broadcast the protests on Jan. 7.
While some protesters have looted and turned violent, social rights activists say that the police are targeting them for arrests.
“The police are arresting protesters in every region,” said Heythem Guesmi, of Manich Msamah an anti-corruption Tunisian organisation. “They’re not even interested in the looters and the anarchists. They’re seeking our protesters and accusing them of things that just don’t make sense.”
Demonstrators are responding to the government’s 2018 national budget which is accompanied by slashed fuel subsidies, increased corporate taxes and a public sector hiring freeze. Also, the population is feeling a sudden and sharp rise in taxes on car purchases and a price hike on communications services.
The 2018 budget also raises a real estate tax in the midst of 15 percent unemployment and food prices that have increased by approximately 8 percent each year since 2011.
The new set of austerity measures are a result of the administration’s 2016 International Monetary Fund, IMF, loan of US$2.9 billion. The IMF claimed the government isn’t doing enough to meet loan conditions so suspended its second loan instalment of US$320 million last April.
In response, Chahed and the parliament hurriedly passed a reformed 2018 budget in December.
Tunisian Economic Reforms Minister Taoufik Rajhi said the administration plans “unprecedented reforms” to cut the deficit to 4.9 percent from six percent this year, hoping to reduce the public sector workforce by 20,000 to meet this goal.