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Niger Police Arrest Anti-Tax Protest Leaders

Federal police in Niger have arrested three leaders of a popular movement against a new tax hike on essential goods. Civil society groups are demanding the immediate release of the three and are calling for new demonstrations next week.

Dozens of federal police officers stormed the headquarters of the "Coalition Against Costly Living" as leaders of the anti-tax movement prepared to meet early Friday with journalists in Niger's capital, Niamey.

Police arrested three of the coalition's leaders. The group's president, Nouhou Arzika, who was briefly taken into police custody last week following a street demonstration, was among them.

The group had been planning to react to a statement by Interior Minister Mounkaila Modi that was broadcast on state-run television Thursday.

In the broadcast, Mr. Modi said recent calls by protest organizers for collective prayers in support of their cause were nothing more than an attempt to destroy a democratically elected regime. And he warned such attitudes would not go unpunished.

Niger's civil society leaders promptly came to defense of the coalition and condemned the arrests as illegal and demanded the three men's immediate release. They are calling for new public protests next Thursday, despite a government-issued ban on street demonstrations.

A representative of the civil society groups, Kassoum Issa, says the people of Niger will not be intimidated by government crackdowns. "You know that in Niger now the government doesn't respect the laws and other things to make democracy right. And we are not free and [don't] agree with that. And that's the reason we are fighting," he said.

Leaders of the anti-tax movement are opposed to a new 19-percent value-added tax. They say the new tax is putting essential goods, like water, cooking oil, and electricity, out of the reach of normal people in Niger, where the average annual income is around $200.

Niger's government says it is simply trying fulfill the demands of the International Monetary Fund and regional banks, in an effort to encourage aid and investment.

The government banned public demonstrations last week after thousands took to the streets of Niamey in support of the movement. A stay at home strike earlier this week was observed in several of Niger's largest cities and brought the capital to a standstill.