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Are democratic revolutions in Arab Muslim countries good or bad for advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people? There is only one case study to consider these days – Tunisia – and the verdict is still out.

A copy of an authorization of suspension of Chams association, signed by the first deputee of the Tunis Court Judge, Mohamed Chaanebi, on December 29, 2015. Courtesy of Chams Association

Tunisia is the only country along the southern coast of the Mediterranean that has legalized LGBT rights associations. Yet the state continues to send men under article 230 of the penal code to prison for up to three years for sodomy.

A guilty verdict does not require police to have caught men in the act, or witnesses. Police routinely arrest people they suspect of sodomy – or they find in gay hang-outs or who just “look gay” – and submit them to an anal test, says Badr Baabou, president of Damj (Inclusion), one of Tunisia’s legalized LGBT rights groups. The test is the main incriminating evidence in convictions, Baabou says. This despite the test is forensically unreliable, cruel, degrading, and in violation of the right to privacy, which international law and Tunisia’s 2014 constitution protect.

Most Tunisians do not favor abolishing article 230, which criminalizes sodomy and lesbianism, says Baabou. Rather than trying to change public opinion, Baabou favors mobilizing civil society. So in January, Damj helped launch the Collective for Individual Liberties, an umbrella group of 30 Tunisian and international rights associations, including mainstream human rights and women’s rights groups. Abolishing article 230 figures prominently in the collective’s platform.

They will face stiff opposition. On January 4, a Tunis court, responding to a government complaint, suspended the LGBT association Shams for 30 days, on the grounds that gay rights declarations its president made on TV digressed from the objectives listed in Shams’s bylaws, which are to defend “sexual and gender minorities.”

When Shams was founded last May, Abdellatif Mekki, a prominent parliamentarian and ex-minister of health, urged its dissolution. “The Tunisian people had a revolution for freedom and so that every individual could enjoy his rights…not to found an associations to defend gays…. Homosexuals…should be punished as the law provides, because this kind of individual behavior is dangerous for society,” he said.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Shams, civil society in Tunisia has stoked a debate on sodomy laws that is more public than in neighboring countries. The debate over article 230 comes as civil society groups are challenging other seemingly popular laws such as Law 52, which provides a mandatory year in prison for marijuana consumption, and the Family Code provision by which women inherit only half as much as men do.

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