Activists in Tunisia have called for a major demonstration against the government’s decision to increase taxes and the prices of basic goods, after hundreds of people were arrested in previous days of protests.
Nearly a week of sometimes violent protests across the country followed the announcement of austerity measures in this year’s budget, which took effect on January 1.
The government estimated that 21 people died in recent protests, but some human rights groups put the total at more than twice that number. Others, including security forces, have reportedly been injured across the country, while security forces have detained 778 people so far, according to the interior ministry.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on Friday urged the Tunisian government to stop using “excessive force” against demonstrators.
“It is imperative that the government launch a transparent, credible and independent investigation into the violence and killings,” Pillay said in a statement. “If there is evidence that members of the security forces have used excessive force, or conducted extrajudicial killings, they must be arrested, tried and – if found guilty of offences – punished according to the law. It is essential that justice is done, and is seen to be done.”
Pillay also expressed concern over the widespread arrests, noting: “Human rights defenders and bloggers, arrested solely for their peaceful activities, must be released immediately.”
Tunisia’s main opposition Popular Front had called for protests through the week.
The group #Fech_Nestannew (What are we waiting for?) also called for more protests on Friday. The protest movement began spontaneously after a few people tagged the phrase on walls across cities in Tunisia, and it quickly gained momentum.
Protests are expected continue through January 14, the anniversary marking the removal of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s former president.
Tunisia’s army has deployed 2,100 troops in different parts of the country, with the stated aim of protecting “sovereign institutions and vital facilities”, defence ministry spokesman Belhassen al-Waslati said on Thursday.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the capital Tunis, said that thousands of people on the streets were enthusiastic about the movement’s momentum.
“People here say that they want to continue to take to the streets in order to put more pressure on the government to scrap the austerity measures,” he said. “They also blame the government for breaking the pledges it made about improving the life standards in the country as poverty and high unemployment continue.”
Tunisia hiked prices for fuel and some consumer goods, while taxes on items such as cars, phone calls, internet and hotel accommodation have also increased. The government defends the measures as necessary to limit a budget deficit that hit six percent of the country’s GDP.
Six years since the 2011 uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, Tunisia has been held up as a model for avoiding the violence that has affected other nations after their Arab Spring revolts.
But Tunisia’s economy has struggled since the revolution, with growth remaining slow.