U.S. raises concern over arrests of prominent critics in Tunisia

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

WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The United States was "deeply concerned" by the reported arrests of political figures, business leaders and journalists in Tunisia in recent days, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday.

In recent days, Tunisian police have detained a number of leading figures with links to the opposition or to critics of President Kais Saied, including prominent politicians, two judges, the head of Tunisia's main independent news outlet and a senior UGTT labour union official.

U.S. officials were engaged with Tunisia's government at all levels in support of human rights and the freedom of expression, Price said in a press briefing.

"We respect the aspirations of the Tunisian people for an independent and transparent judiciary that is able to protect fundamental freedoms for all," Price added.

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

Reuters was able to confirm the arrests of eight people with their lawyers and relatives, as of Wednesday.

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

Tunisians have been suffering for months from shortages of food commodities that economic experts say are mainly caused by a crisis in public finances as the state attempts to avert bankruptcy while negotiating for an international bailout.

Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said on Tuesday that the arrests were not political but related to Tunisia's national security.

Since Saied shut down parliament 18 months ago, moving to rule by decree before rewriting the constitution, security forces had moved only sporadically against opponents who accuse him of an undemocratic coup.

Tunisia's powerful UGTT labour union had condemned what it described as arbitrary arrest campaigns by the authorities, and renewed calls to its supporters to mobilise before planned protests against Saied's policies.

Reporting by Simon Lewis and Kanishka Singh; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy

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Kanishka Singh is a breaking news reporter for Reuters in Washington DC, who primarily covers US politics and national affairs in his current role. His past breaking news coverage has spanned across a range of topics like the Black Lives Matter movement; the US elections; the 2021 Capitol riots and their follow up probes; the Brexit deal; US-China trade tensions; the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan; the COVID-19 pandemic; and a 2019 Supreme Court verdict on a religious dispute site in his native India.