Mothers in the Tunisian capital accuse authorities of arbitrarily arresting their children in response to nearly a week of unrest, with rights groups saying at least 1,000 people have been arrested.
“The policeman pushed open the door to my building and arrested my son. My neighbors have witnessed it, ”said Meriem Ben Salem after six nights of unrest in the streets between riot police and disgruntled young people.
The 39-year-old mother said her son had not taken part in the violence raging in parts of Tunisia, including his working-class neighborhood of Kram-Ouest in Tunis.
“I work hard to make money to enroll my kids in extracurricular activities to make sure they stay busy and don’t hang around the neighborhood because there are drugs and drugs. ‘alcohol,’ she says.
Her 18-year-old son Seifeddine was in the stairwell when police “broke in” and caught him, said Ben Salem, who works as a seamstress in a factory for 500 dinars ($ 185) a month.
Seifeddine, a second-year technical school student with no criminal record, has been accused of participating in acts of violence and is due to stand trial on January 29.
“If my son had done something wrong, I wouldn’t stand up for him. He should take responsibility for his actions, ”Ben Salam said.
On Wednesday, Ben Salam and other mothers gathered outside a Tunis court to denounce the arrests.
Some have said their children have been taken into police custody for violating a nighttime curfew imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The protests erupted on January 14, before easing Wednesday evening, as the COVID-19 pandemic shakes an already struggling economy, 10 years after an uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
At least 1,000 people, many of them minors, have been arrested, human rights and other nongovernmental groups told a press conference on Thursday.
“Some were arrested without even having participated in the protests,” said Bassem Trifi of the Tunisian Human Rights League.
Activists have been arrested for expressing support for the protests on Facebook and other social media, and at least one now faces six years in prison if convicted, the groups said.
They warned that such arrests would increase anger in the streets against the security forces and turn the population against the authorities.
Authorities said on Monday they had made 600 arrests, then reported 70 more over the next two days.
The protests are accompanied by a plummeting economy, skyrocketing youth unemployment and mounting anger against political leaders.
Much of the unrest has hit the working class neighborhoods, where 10 years after the revolution, young people are still clamoring for jobs and “dignity” – the uprising’s main demands.
Ben Salam said she was only allowed to see her son three days after his arrest, and when they met he was in tears.
“He had been beaten in the legs and had a black eye,” said her husband Mohammed, a laborer.
Oumeyma Mehdi, of the NGO Lawyers Without Borders, said most of the cases against those arrested contained “serious procedural flaws”.
The minors, she said, were illegally imprisoned and should be tried in the absence of their parents or jailed protection service representatives.
Those arrested and imprisoned as adults are deprived of lawyers, medical assistance and cannot contact their parents, Mehdi added.
Some lawyers said more than 100 people had already been convicted in a hearing that lasted just four hours.