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Tunisian groups say police arrested 1,000 people over six days of protests

Rights groups said civilians who voiced support for protests on Facebook during the crackdown were also detained
Police used rubber bullets and water cannons against anti-government protests who hurled rocks and petrol bombs (AFP)

Tunisian security forces have arrested at least 1,000 people in the last six days, as riot police continue to clash with protestors, human rights groups said on Thursday. 

Tunisia's economic crisis - exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic - has sparked rapid inflation and high youth unemployment, and has led many people to leave the North African country.

Local authorities said they had made 600 arrests on Monday and reported a further 70 over the last two days. Tunisian rights groups have contested the figure, saying it is much higher. 

Bassem Trifi, from the Tunisian League for Human Rights, said that many of the arrests were "arbitrary" and "included many minors." 

"We are asking the justice system to look closely into the cases," Trifi told a press conference in Tunis, alongside other civil society groups. 

"We will not manage to resolve the crisis in this way. It can only deepen the gulf between the people and the government."

Rights groups said that security forces had used tear gas and water cannons against protestors, mainly young people, who hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police. 

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The coalition of groups added that some people who have not participated in the demonstrations were also detained for supporting the protests on Facebook, with at least one of them facing six years in prison if convicted. 

Thousands of protests

The protests, which have been centred around jobs, dignity and the release of detainees, have followed overnight clashes between security forces and youths.

Shortly before last week's 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi's government ordered a four-day lockdown and a tighter nighttime curfew to contain the spread of Covid-19, as well as a ban on protests.

In a televised speech on Tuesday, Mechichi said he understood popular anger over the economic situation and the frustration of young people, but that violence was not acceptable.

"Your voice is heard and your anger is legitimate... Do not allow saboteurs among you," he said.

Despite numerous democratic elections, protests continue to break out, especially in the central and southern regions where youth joblessness has reached 30 percent and the poverty level is above 20 percent.

In 2020 alone, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) recorded 6,500 protests, all of which were motivated by economic, social and environmental demands. 

The key tourism sector, already on its knees after a string of deadly militant attacks in 2015, has been dealt a devastating blow by the pandemic.