Powerful Tunisian trade union defies president with mass protests

SFAX, Tunisia, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Thousands of members of Tunisia's powerful UGTT trade union took to the streets of eight cities on Saturday to protest against President Kais Saied's policies, accusing him of trying to stifle basic freedoms including union rights.

The protests in eight cities marked an escalation in the union's confrontation with Saied and followed its criticism of the recent arrests of several anti-government figures including politicians, a journalist, two judges and a senior UGTT official.

The coordinated arrests have raised fears of a wider crackdown on dissent and prompted the U.N. Human Rights Office to call for the detainees' immediate release.

In Saturday's demonstrations, thousands of protesters in the southern city of Sfax carried national flags and banners with slogans including "Stop the attack on union freedoms" and "Cowardly Saied, the union is not afraid.".

Senior UGTT official Othman Jalouli told the crowd Saied's government "wants to silence the voice of the union".

Protests also took pace in the cities of Jendouba, Tozeur, Monastir, Bizerte, Kasserine, Kairouan and Nabeul.

More demonstrations are planned in other cities in the coming days, concluding with a rally in the capital, Tunis, early next month.

Addressing the Sfax protest, Esther Lynch, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said she had come to convey a message of support from 45 million European trade unionists and called for the immediate release of detained union officials.

Prior to the recent wave of arrests, police detained another UGTT official over a strike by toll booth workers last month and launched an investigation into 14 other transport union officials over a different strike.

The UGTT, which has more than a million members and has brought the country to a virtual standstill during strikes, has denounced such measures, saying the government was trying to stifle freedoms of expression in a bid to deflect attention from the country's economic troubles.

Saied, who shut down parliament in 2021, seizing most powers and moving to rule by decree before writing a new constitution, said this week that authorities do not target freedoms, but seek to hold everyone accountable equally.

In his first comments after the arrests, he accused "traitors" of being responsible for price increases and food shortages and wanted to fuel a social crisis.

Reporting by Tarek Amara Editing by Helen Popper

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