When Tunisian police shut down a planned demonstration on January 27, they claimed they did it for the protesters’ safety. “We had information that they were going to be targeted,” said an interior ministry spokesperson, according to news reports.
The rallying call of Saturday’s protest, organized by the secular group Association des Libres Penseurs (Association of Free Thinkers), or ALP, was “Sayebni” –“let me be” in Arabic. Organizers knew some of their demands might be controversial: freedom of conscience, gender equality, and the elimination of laws such as section 230 of the penal code, which criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct, and section 52, which imposes harsh sentences for cannabis possession and use.
But the authorities’ claim they were looking out for activists’ own good doesn’t hold water. International law obliges governments to take necessary steps to ensure peaceful protests can take place in safety and security. That may mean providing police protection to protesters in order to prevent any security incidents that might arise, such as attacks by violent counter-protesters.
Mounir Baatour, an activist working with ALP and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organization Shams, told Human Rights Watch that the Association of Free Thinkers notified the authorities of the planned protest, as required under Tunisian law, on January 24. On January 26, after Shams publicly supported the protest and put out a call for LGBT people to attend, Interior Ministry officials summoned ALP’s president and told him the protest was prohibited, without further explanation. “There was no security threat. It’s because the authorities are homophobic.”
The forceful dispersion of protestors suggests authorities’ objections to the demonstration extended beyond participants’ “safety.” Baatour said police shoved and hit several LGBT protestors, twisting the arm of the director of Shams. Police briefly detained, without charge, two activists for attempting to wave a rainbow flag.
“Tunisia has, at times, allowed for demonstrations critical of government policy, but Saturday’s shutdown – following on the heels of a range of police abuses during protests in early January over the adoption of austerity measure - raises questions about the depth of Tunisia’s commitment to the fundamental right to peaceful protest.”
The Tunisian authorities cannot pick and choose. Abiding by their international human rights obligations means allowing diverse voices to be heard – including the voices of sexual and gender minorities.
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March 5, 2018: An earlier version of this dispatch listed an "elimination of 'retroactive laws'" as one demand expressed during a planned demonstration on January 27, 2018. This has been corrected to "elimination of laws".