Mothers in the Tunisian capital are accusing 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 shoved the door of my building and arrested my son. My neighbours witnessed it,” Meriem Ben Salem said after six nights of trouble on the streets between riot police and disaffected youths.
The 39-year-old mother said her son did not take part in the violence that gripped regions across Tunisia, including her working-class district of Kram-Ouest in Tunis.
“I work hard to earn money to enrol my children in extracurricular activities to make sure they keep busy and not loiter in the neighbourhood because it’s rife with drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Her son Seifeddine, 18, was in the stairwell when the police “barged” in and grabbed him, said Ben Salem, who works as a seamstress in a factory for 500 dinars ($185) a month.
Seifeddine, a second-year student at a technical school with no criminal record, has been accused of taking part in acts of violence and is expected to stand trial on January 29.
“If my son had done something wrong, I would not defend him. He would have to assume responsibility for his actions,” said Ben Salam.
On Wednesday, Ben Salam and other mothers rallied outside a Tunis court to denounce the arrests.
Some said their children were taken into custody for having violated a nighttime curfew imposed to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The protests erupted on January 14, before easing on Wednesday night, as the COVID-19 pandemic rattles an already embattled economy, 10 years after an uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
At least 1,000 people, including many minors, have been arrested, human rights and other non-government groups told a news conference on Thursday.
“Some were arrested without even having taken part in the demonstrations,” said Bassem Trifi of the Tunisian League of Human Rights.
Activists have been rounded up for voicing support for the protests on Facebook and other social media, and at least one of them now faces six years in jail if convicted, the groups said.
They warned that such arrests would heighten anger on the streets against security forces and turn the people against authorities.
The authorities said on Monday they had made 600 arrests, then reported another 70 over the following two days.
The protests come with the economy in free-fall, youth unemployment soaring and anger mounting against the political leadership.
Much of the unrest hit working-class neighbourhoods, where 10 years after the revolution youths still clamour for jobs and “dignity” – key demands of the uprising.
Ben Salam said she was allowed to see her son only three days after his arrest, and when they reunited he was in tears.
“He had been beaten on the legs and had a black eye,” said her husband Mohammed, a day labourer.
Oumeyma Mehdi, from the NGO Lawyers Without Borders, said most of the cases against those arrested contained “serious procedural flaws”.
Minors, she said, were being imprisoned unlawfully and would have to go on trial in the absence of their parents or representatives of jailed protection services.
Those arrested and jailed as adults are being deprived of lawyers, medical assistance and barred from contacting their parents, Mehdi added.
Some lawyers have said more than 100 people have already been sentenced in a hearing that lasted just four hours.