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Tunisians demonstrate against a bill that would protect those accused of corruption from prosecution on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, May 13, 2017.  © 2017 REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
(Tunis) – Tunisia stalled during 2017 on reforming repressive laws and establishing key institutions to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2018. While progress was made on women’s rights, lawmakers enacted laws that threaten the democratic transition by granting amnesty for certain corruption charges and are considering a bill that would reinforce impunity for the security forces and criminalize peaceful expression.

“Tunisia is like an amoeba moving in many directions at once, some beneficial and others harmful,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Wrong directions include the new law providing an amnesty for certain kinds of corruption and a draft law that would punish criticizing the police.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Tunisia’s Constitution, adopted in January 2014, mandates the creation of a Constitutional Court that can invalidate laws that don’t conform with international human rights standards. But authorities have yet to establish the court and appoint its members.

Tunisia continued to lead on women’s rights in the Arab world, Human Rights Watch said. On July 26, parliament adopted a comprehensive law to address violence against women, which includes provisions to prevent violence, protect victims, and prosecute abusers. The law eliminated from the penal code a provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim.

On September 14, the Justice Ministry announced that it had rescinded a 1973 directive prohibiting marriages of Tunisian women to non-Muslim men.

Judicial authorities continued to use the penal code to punish peaceful speech, however. The police have used article 125, which criminalizes “insulting a public official,” to arrest people for arguing with them or being slow to heed orders, or for filing a complaint against the police. Some people have been prosecuted or imprisoned in these cases.

Parliament adopted Law 49 on “reconciliation in the administrative field,” which shields from prosecution civil servants implicated in corruption and embezzlement of public funds but who did not benefit personally. The law undermines the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which was established in 2014 with a mandate to investigate both past human rights violations and economic crimes.

Despite accepting a recommendation during its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May to end discredited anal testing to “prove” homosexuality, the Tunisian government has not yet taken any concrete steps to carry out its pledge. Authorities have continued to prosecute presumed gay men under article 230 of the penal code, which provides up to three years in prison for “sodomy.”

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