In March of this year, police in Tunis looked on as four men violently assaulted Badr Baabou, the head of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality (Damj), a prominent LGBTQI+ rights group. That same month, a plainclothes officer attempted to force his way inside the association’s office without a warrant and interrogated employees there about their activities. Additionally, a prominent queer activist with ties to Damj was sentenced to six months behind bars for “insulting” police officers, only to be ordered released on appeal shortly thereafter.
Asala Mdawkhy, a regional coordinator for Damj, spoke with TIMEP about the Tunisian government’s latest crackdown on the LGBTQI+ community. She said that LGBTQI+ Tunisians were highly visible during protests last October against a police protection bill that would have shielded security personnel from accountability for use of force. Again in December and January, members of the LGBTQI+ community joined thousands of other Tunisians in the street to protest police violence and the country’s deteriorating economic situation, which had only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and related restrictions.
By the middle of February, Tunisian authorities had arrested and detained nearly two thousand people. In this environment, LGBTQI+ Tunisians have faced escalated harassment on and offline, violent reprisals, and arrests and prosecution, both in response to their peaceful advocacy as well as solely on the basis of their gender expression and sexual orientation.
According to Mdawkhy, in recent months police have increasingly targeted both activists working with Damj as well as LGBTQI+ Tunisians who benefit from the services offered by the organization. In January, Hamza Nasri, an activist at the association, was arrested from the street after participating in demonstrations and held for three days without food, a mattress, or access to a mask or hand sanitizer in “horrible” conditions alongside 80 other detainees. He was accused of violating “public morals” by raising his middle finger at a protest; though he was conditionally released, he told AFP in March that he faces more than three years in prison on charges of “insulting” the police and blocking roads.
Nasri had been previously arrested alongside a social worker at Damj, Saif Ayadi, during a demonstration in front of Tunisia’s Parliament on December 8. Police later raided Ayadi’s home without a warrant while he was away on December 22. Mdawkhy, meanwhile, confirmed that police have raided her office twice, followed her home, and remained parked outside her office for days at a time. “They want to say, ‘We are here. We know where you work. We know your house. We know your contacts [and] your beneficiaries at the NGO.’”
Ayoub Boulaabi, another activist who works with Damj, was forcibly disappeared in February, physically assaulted and denied the right to communicate with a lawyer while in detention, and forced to sign a false confession in which he admitted to assaulting a police officer, Mdawkhy said.
Transgender and intersex Tunisians have also faced escalated harassment and violence amid the government’s wider crackdown on protesters. During a demonstration organized by police unions on February 2, security personnel violently assaulted a transgender woman who has since told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that she is “terrified” to leave her house. Amine Jelassi, a law professor and civil rights activist in Tunisia, told TIMEP that it is not uncommon for LGBTQI+ Tunisians to be forced to pay bribes to the police just to leave them alone. On February 3, Najla Ben Salah reported in independent blog Nawaat that an intersex individual named Damino was pulled aside by police during a protest, ridiculed, interrogated, and threatened with assault. Damino told HRW that they have continued to face harassment by the same officers. Mdawkhy explained that members of the trans community are often targeted by police solely on the basis of a perceived “mismatch” between their IDs and gender expression. On February 9, trans activist Ahmed El-Tounsi was detained and violently assaulted after police stopped him to check his ID in downtown Tunis. El-Tounsi and several other trans activists were also assaulted by a group of police officers last August.
In addition to the crackdown on the ground, numerous Facebook pages, both officially and unofficially affiliated with the country’s police unions have increasingly been used to harass, threaten, and smear activists and doxx LGBTQI+ Tunisians, effectively outing them to their families and communities and putting them at great risk as a result. On February 1, queer activist “Mariam” was abducted by four officers and taken to a deserted street, where she was physically assaulted and had her phone seized, which the officers then used to send abusive messages to her friends and relatives. Following the assault, Mariam’s address and phone number were posted online, and she has since received “dozens” of phone calls threatening her with rape and murder. Mariam was arrested on February 5 on accusations of “insulting” a police officer and has been conditionally released pending trial.
How do Tunisian authorities use the law to crack down on LGBTQI+ Tunisians?
Jelassi and Mdawkhy agreed that authorities continue to rely on “vaguely-worded” articles of Tunisia’s Penal Code to arrest and prosecute LGBTQI+ activists and target members of the community whose gender expression and/or sexual orientation is deemed by police to be deviant from the norm. Both cited Article 230 of the code, which punishes “sodomy” with up to three years in prison. According to Jelassi, Article 230 violates provisions of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution that protect the rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination. He also said that judges have interpreted the law widely, explaining that evidence of same-sex conduct can include police finding condoms and lubricant in an individual’s home or an individual’s perceived “effeminate” appearance or behavior.
Articles 226 and 226 bis, meanwhile, deal with violating “public morals” and public indecency and are commonly used to target transgender people for being visible in public, according to Jelassi, who also said that police finding gay pornography on an individual’s computer or a suspicious text conversation on their phone is enough to convict them under this law. In January of this year, Damj recorded over 10 arbitrary arrests of trans people in Sousse in just two weeks, at least five of whom were awaiting trial at the time on the basis of articles 230, 226, and 226 bis. A court dismissed the case against them in late January.
Article 231 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes sex work other than that which is regulated by the law, has also been used alongside Article 226 to target transgender Tunisians on the basis of their gender expression and identity, which police have claimed threatens public order, Jelassi said.
Mdawkhy also cited Article 125 of the Penal Code, which she said is “used to oppress citizens and reinforce police power and authority.” On March 4, a Tunisian court sentenced queer activist Rania Amdouni to six months in prison on charges of “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duties” under Article 125. She had faced intensified harassment online in weeks prior, including death and rape threats, which prompted her to file a complaint at a police station, where she was subsequently detained; an appeals court later ordered her release on bail. Violations of due process are not uncommon, according to both Mdawkhi and Jelassi. These have included detainees being denied the right to communicate with lawyers and family members, along with incidents of ill treatment and torture in detention.
What needs to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ Tunisians?
In February, Damj and HRW published a joint letter calling attention to the escalating crackdown against the LGBTQI+ community by Tunisian authorities. The letter points to proposals from the presidentially-appointed Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality in 2018 to decriminalize homosexuality and put an end to anal examinations, expressing concern over “such back-tracking in a country that has witnessed progress toward recognizing the rights of LGBT people.”
Although anal examinations are considered torture under international law, police in Tunisia had regularly ordered they be performed to “prove” homosexual conduct. In 2015 alone, at least seven men in Sousse and Kairouan were subjected to forced anal examinations; several of them likened the practice to rape. In September 2017, the Tunisian government accepted recommendations from UN Member States to outlaw anal examinations following the adoption of the third universal period review of human rights in the country. According to Jelassi and Mdawkhy, however, a lack of information in smaller cities makes it difficult for activists to determine whether or not the practice has continued, and both said that judges regularly interpret a detainee’s refusal to undergo an anal exam as proof that they have engaged in same-sex conduct.
A 2020 decision by Tunisia’s Court of Cassation affirming the legal right of Shams, an LGBTQI+ rights organization, to operate in the country represents limited progress, according to Jelassi, who also identified the adoption in 2018 of a law outlawing racial discrimination as a step in the right direction. The country still lacks a law that addresses discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity—something that is sorely needed, Mdawkhy said.
Both Jelassi and Mdawkhy agreed that the government should start by decriminalizing homosexuality and conducting an “urgent revision of the Penal policy,” which would include abrogating articles “susceptible to abuse by the authorities”—such as Articles 230, 226, and 226 bis—and replacing them with laws that protect LGBTQI+ Tunisians. Jelassi also underlined the need to hold trainings for police officers and judges on LGBTQI+ issues and rights.
During the COVID-19 crisis when vulnerable people may feel alienated from their communities or be trapped inside with their abusers, Damj and Mawjoudin (“We Exist”)—another Tunisia-based LGBTQI+ rights group—have provided mental health resources to LGBTQI+ Tunisians and worked to remove the stigma around seeking help. Throughout the crisis, Damj has also continued to provide legal support to LGBTQI+ Tunisians, in addition to working with other civil society organizations to combat all forms of discrimination. Mawjoudin, meanwhile, has organized annual queer film festivals in Tunsia since 2018, provided support to LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, and worked to raise awareness about digital security in queer communities alongside Damj and like-minded organizations from Lebanon, Jordan, and Sudan. “We rely on support from allies,” Mdawkhy said. “The thing that scares them the most is that we would communicate these violations and report on them.”