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Tunisia: Powerful labour union and opposition decry 'violent arrests'

UGTT union accuses the government of stifling voices and urges members to prepare ‘to defend the right of Tunisians’
Ahmed Nejib Chebbi speaks during a press conference in the capital Tunis on 15 February 2023 (AFP)
Ahmed Nejib Chebbi speaks during a press conference in the capital Tunis, on 15 February 2023 (AFP)

Tunisia's powerful labour union and the opposition decried on Wednesday the latest wave of arrests in the country targeting prominent opponents of President Kais Saied. 

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) said legal violations were committed in the "arbitrary detentions" which it said the government was carrying out to "stifle voices". 

"We condemn the arbitrary detentions… and reject using the legal system to settle political scores and abuse opponents," UGTT said in a statement

Tunisian police have arrested at least 10 prominent public figures since Saturday. They included political opponents of Saied, the head of a popular independent radio station, two judges, a senior UGTT official, and a controversial businessman. 

The arrests have raised concerns about a wider crackdown on dissent and prompted calls from opposition politicians, activists, and the UN Human Rights Office for their immediate release. 

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US Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday that Washington was "deeply concerned" by the arrests.

'The country is in crisis and the government is only thinking about how to neutralise its opponents'

- Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of Salvation Front

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of the Salvation Front, called the arrests "violent and legally baseless".

The Salvation Front is the biggest anti-Saied alliance formed in response to the president's seizure of power 18 months ago. 

Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in July 2021, in what many branded a "constitutional coup". 

He subsequently ruled by decree, before pushing a new constitution that enshrined his one-man rule.

"The country is in crisis and the government is only thinking about how to neutralise its opponents," Chebbi told journalists in Tunis on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said Tuesday that the arrests were related to the country’s national security and rejected the accusation they were political. 

Saied also defended the arrests, saying those detained were "terrorists who must be held legally accountable".

He accused "traitors" of being responsible for price increases and food shortages and wanting to fuel a social crisis.

"We will not let Tunisia be prey to these criminals and terrorists," he said during a visit to the interior ministry.

The powerful UGTT Union, which has more than a million members, was initially reluctant to publicly oppose Saied after his power grab measures in 2021. However, it has joined criticism of the president in recent months, saying that it rejects his autocratic approach.

Noureddine Taboubi, head of the UGTT union, voiced his support for protests against the president. He previously said the union was preparing for a "national battle to save Tunisia".

In its statement on Wednesday, the union called on its members to prepare "to defend the right of Tunisians, refusing to target the right to strike, and public and individual freedoms, with all legitimate forms of struggle".

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