Tunisia's Saied says detainees are behind shortages, rising prices

European Union - African Union summit in Brussels
Tunisia's President Kais Saied gives a statement on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination, during a European Union - African Union summit, in Brussels, Belgium February 18, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool

TUNIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Tunisia's president on Tuesday accused some people detained in a wave of recent arrests of being responsible for price increases and food shortages, saying they wanted to fuel a social crisis.

President Kais Saied vowed to move forward to "clean the country," in his first official comments on the arrests made during a meeting with Tunisia's trade minister.

Since Saturday police have detained a number of leading figures with links to the opposition or to critics of Saied including prominent politicians, a powerful businessman and the head of Tunisia's main independent news outlet.

"The recent arrests have shown that a number of criminals involved in conspiring against the internal and external security of the state are the ones behind the crises by distributing food stuff and raising their prices," Saied said during the meeting, according to a video posted online.

He did not give any details on which of the detained people he was referring to or how they were responsible for the crisis.

In the video, Saied was shown calling on judges to take appropriate decisions against "the traitors who seek to fuel the social crisis".

Tunisians have been suffering for months from shortages of food commodities that have disappeared from stores, including sugar, cooking oil, coffee, milk and butter.

Economic experts say that the shortages, which have affected subsidised products, are mainly caused by a crisis in public finances as the state attempts to avert bankruptcy while negotiating for an international bailout.

The U.N. Human Rights Office on Tuesday called on Tunisia to respect due process in judicial proceedings and "release immediately all those arbitrarily detained including anyone detained in relation to the exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion or expression" according to a statement by spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar on Tuesday rejected the remarks by "foreign powers" and said they were "hasty, inaccurate and undermined the independence of the judiciary."

Ammar said that the recent arrests were due to serious issues related to Tunisia's national security and had nothing to do with politics, media or human rights.

The opposition has said the campaign of arrests aims to silence dissent, empower a slide towards autocracy and cover up Saied's failure to manage the worsening social and economic crisis.

Reporting By Tarek Amara and Moaz Abd-Alaziz; Editing by Angus McDowall, William Maclean and Caitlin Webber

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