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Protesters gather in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia on February 6, 2021. © 2021 Karim Saadi

(Beirut) – Tunisian security forces have repeatedly targeted protesters, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists at protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The targeting involved arbitrary arrests, physical assaults, threats to rape and kill, and refusing access to legal counsel.

Human Rights Watch documented cases in which the police have singled out LGBTI activists for particular mistreatment at protests. At the same time, social media posts have harassed LGBTI activists, revealing their personal information including home addresses and phone numbers, and “outing” them. Individuals also smeared them online based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and posted their photos with messages inciting violence against them.

“LGBTI activists who persist in protesting are terrified that security forces will single them out at protests, round them up, and abuse them with impunity,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces have an obligation to protect the right of peaceful protest, not harass activists whose bold engagement has contributed to Tunisia’s reputation as a regional leader in its progress on human rights."

The recent accounts of abuse were provided against the backdrop of increased persecution of LGBTI people during the Covid-19 pandemic in Tunisia, where homosexuality is criminalized, and an intensified crackdown on LGBTI organizing in recent years.

The protests, which began in many regions on January 15, 2021 and have been largely peaceful by day, were sparked by declining economic conditions, exacerbated by the pandemic, and fueled by the police’s use of excessive force in response which resulted in one man’s death and numerous injuries.

Insaf Bouhafs, the LGBTI program coordinator at Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers Without Borders), told Human Rights Watch that ASF has documented over 1,600 arrests, about 30 percent of them children, at protests. In a report reviewed by Human Rights Watch, ASF documented unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in Bouchoucha detention center in Tunis, in violation of the government’s own hygiene and social distancing regulations to combat the spread of Covid-19, as well as global guidelines. The report says that children were detained alongside adults, which international law prohibits. Many remain detained in abusive conditions, subjected to physical violence by prison authorities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 LGBTI rights activists, who said they were abused by authorities in distinct incidents, 5 lawyers who represented some of the victims in these cases, and an activist who said he fled the country to escape police persecution. Human Rights Watch also reviewed online footage of apparent police violence, as well as statements by individuals and nongovernmental organizations, and visual media provided by victims documenting incidents of violence and online harassment.

All activists interviewed said police verbally harassed them and threatened them with violence, including three threatened with rape and five threatened with death. Seven said security forces arbitrarily arrested them, and eight said they were harassed online. Nine said they were physically abused at protests or in arbitrary detention, and three said police intimidated them, followed them in the street, and searched for them in their neighborhoods, prompting them to relocate.

As a result of the online harassment, people interviewed said they felt they had to leave their homes and neighborhoods and delete their social media accounts. One activist said he fled the country after police arbitrarily detained and beat him, and his home address and phone number were posted online.

A February 5 statement by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said he had met with security forces, commended their “professionalism in dealing with protests,” and warned against protesters’ attempts to “lure security forces into using violence against them.”

Rania Amdouni, 26, a queer feminist activist, told Human Rights Watch, “I don’t feel safe, even in my apartment. Police came looking for me in my neighborhood. My life is threatened, and my mental health is deteriorating. People are staring at me in the street and harassing me online.” She said she received an online message saying, “We will find you at the protests and we will terrorize you.”

Police arrested a 23-year-old queer activist on February 8, took him to an undisclosed location, and then denied him the right to call a lawyer. A security officer in Mornag prison repeatedly punched him and said, “We will keep you here for 10 years, and your torture will be our duty,” his lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The activist was detained for 10 days in an overcrowded cell, on a charge of “assaulting a public official,” punishable by up to 10 years. On February 17, the First Instance Tribunal in Tunis imposed a five-month suspended sentence in the case.

A 29-year-old intersex queer activist was arbitrarily arrested and harassed by police at a peaceful protest because, they said, they were carrying a banner that provoked an officer. “I realized that they [police officers] are just a gang of men who could physically and sexually assault me with impunity,” they said.

Saif Ayadi, a social worker at Damj Association for Justice and Equality, a Tunis-based LGBT rights group, said, “Police are using homophobic chants in protests against us, calling us ‘faggots’ and ‘sodomites’ who deserve to be killed. They are trying to use our identities to discredit the [general] protest movement, but we are the movement, and our demands are intersectional.”

Human Rights Watch and Damj Association sent a letter to the UN special rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, free expression, and privacy, and on the situation of human rights defenders, as well as the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and EU member states.

The groups urged officials to press the Tunisian government to hold their security forces accountable for violations of international law and ensure that authorities refrain from using unjustified grounds, such as vague “morality” claims, to curtail basic freedoms of sexual and gender minorities, and undermine the rights to free assembly, association, and expression.

The enforcement of the right to privacy, protected under Tunisia’s constitution, provides a critical safeguard against online discrimination, particularly “outing” LGBTI people. The criminalization of homosexuality, under article 230 of the penal code, leaves LGBTI people in Tunisia particularly vulnerable to such discrimination, the consequences of which may lead to ostracization, expulsion from housing, and dismissal from jobs, Human Rights Watch said.

Tunisian authorities should investigate allegations of police violence against activists and immediately release and drop all charges against protesters based on their peaceful assembly, sexual orientation, or gender identity, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should take appropriate measures to prevent and punish speech that incites to violence.

“Tunisian authorities should take note that police repression will not silence activists who have the right to peacefully protest without intimidation and organize without official interference,” Younes said. “UN officials and Tunisia’s allies should press the Tunisian government to immediately halt these abuses and hold security forces accountable.”

Reported Online Harassment, Arbitrary Arrests, Ill-Treatment in Police Custody

Ahmed El-Tounsi, 38
El-Tounsi, a transgender man and LGBT rights activist, said he was leaving a media interview in Le Passage, in downtown Tunis, on February 9 when police forced him into a police vehicle and attacked him. Police told El-Tounsi that they had seen him at protests, and proceeded to beat him “from every direction,” he said. When they saw the mismatch between his ID and gender expression, police officers cursed him and ridiculed his appearance.

Officers then took him to Bab Souika police station and invited other police officers to attack him: “Come meet the sodomite who defends faggots,” El-Tounsi said police told him. “They all began beating me, threw me to the ground, and kicked me,” he said. The police then pushed El-Tounsi out of the station, he said: “I managed to run away. I was terrified.”

Chahine, 23
On February 8, at 12:30 p.m., police arrested Chahine, a queer activist, on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, and took him to an undisclosed location, his lawyer said. Legal representatives from the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH) said they contacted at least four detention centers, as well as the Interior Ministry, to inquire about Chahine’s arrest, but all denied that he was in police custody.

Damj Association, which documented his case, said that the police denied Chahine the right to call a lawyer. He spent 24 hours in pretrial detention in Bouchoucha police station, then was transferred to Mornag prison, northeast of Tunis, where he was detained for 10 days in an overcrowded cell, his lawyer said.

His lawyer said that a security officer at Mornag prison repeatedly punched Chahine in the face and told him, “We will keep you here for 10 years, and your torture will be our duty.” Chahine said that the head of Mornag prison said, “These faggots have filled the prisons. They think they now have a voice.”

LTDH, Damj, and the lawyer said that police questioned Chahine without the presence of a lawyer, and that within 24 hours of his arrest, the public prosecutor, based on the police report, ordered him detained on a charge of “assaulting a public official while performing their duty,” punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. On February 17, the First Instance Tribunal in Tunis issued a five-month suspended sentence in Chahine’s case. The lawyers plan to appeal.

“Damino,” 29
Damino, 29, an intersex and queer activist, said that on January 26, 2021, they were at a peaceful protest on a street in Bardo, near Tunisia’s parliament, carrying a banner that says, “The system is corrupt from the ruler to the government.” A Facebook video shows people who appear to be police in civilian clothes forcefully removing Damino from the protest.

Damino said police accused them of “insulting a police officer,” took them to the barricades near a police station, harassed them based on their intersex identity, and said, “We will do whatever we want with you.” Damino said one officer told his colleague, “Try not to leave a mark when you beat her.”

“I was terrified because I realized that they are just a gang of men who could physically and sexually assault me with impunity,” they told Human Rights Watch.

Since then, Damino said, the same officers had been following them at protests and near their residence. One told them, “If you protest again, we will find you and do to you what we threatened we will,” they said.

Hamza Nasri, 28
On January 18 at 3 p.m., National Security officers arrested Nasri, an LGBT rights activist and Damj member, at a peaceful protest for “insulting a police officer” and “committing an immoral act in public,” both punishable by up to six months in prison, because he had raised his middle finger at police during the protest. Nasri said he spent three days in Bouchoucha detention center, after which he was provisionally released, pending trial, which has not been scheduled.

Makram Jmem, 24
On January 23, at 4:30 p.m., Jmem and other activists, including Ayadi, were leaving a meeting when security officers attacked them from behind, beat them, and forced them into a police vehicle, Jmem said.

The police took Jmem and Ayadi to the 7 eme police station in Tunis, where, Jmem said, officers demanded to search their phones and verbally abused them when they refused, including calling them “faggots” and harassing them based on their presumed sexual orientation. Jmem said officers photographed them without their consent, then released them without charge.

On January 30, at 2 p.m., after an altercation between protesters and security forces, Jmem said, his photo and contact information were posted online. Jmem said he immediately deleted his social media accounts and fled Tunisia for fear that he would be targeted and harmed by security forces. Jmem told Human Rights Watch that in 2018, he was detained for “sodomy” under article 230 and imprisoned for three months.

“Mariam,” 25
“Mariam” (whose real name is not being used for her protection), has been active in the protests, and said that on February 1 four police officers, two in civilian clothing, arrested her on the street:

They threw me in the police car, took me to a deserted street and started beating me. They punched me in the eye, slapped, and kicked me. They took my phone and sent insulting messages to my friends and family. Then they pushed me on the street.

Mariam said that her private information was published on Facebook, including her home address and phone number. She received dozens of calls and voice messages, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, threatening rape and murder, and calling her a “whore” who “deserves to be gang raped.”

On February 4, police arrested her and took her to Bouchoucha detention center, where she spent the night. They accused her of “insulting a police officer” because she had raised her middle finger at a protest.

At the station, a woman officer stripped her and searched her, then told her to “open her legs” so she could “look inside your vagina.” “When I refused, she pulled my hair, banged my head into the wall repeatedly, slapped me, and cursed me,” Mariam said.

“I’m getting harassed at work, the landlord wants me out of the house, I’m terrified to go on the street alone,” she said.

She was provisionally released on February 5, pending trial.

Rania Amdouni, 26
Amdouni, a queer feminist activist, said she has been subjected to online harassment, bullying, and incitement to violence, including death and rape threats. Human Rights Watch has seen many of the posts, including some with her photos alongside personal and contact information. She said that her social media accounts have been hacked multiple times.

Since January, Amdouni has received hundreds of messages on Facebook, some of which Human Rights Watch reviewed, threatening her over her LGBT rights activism and gender expression. One man in a message to Amdouni, said, “We will find you at the protests and we will terrorize you.”

Amdouni said:

My life is threatened, I don’t feel safe, even in my apartment. Police came looking for me in my neighborhood. My physical safety is threatened, and my mental health is deteriorating. People are staring at me in the street and harassing me online.

On January 11, police searched for Amdouni at her residence, which prompted her to leave her neighborhood and hide out, she said. She also has since deleted her social media accounts.

On January 30, during a peaceful protest, police officers beat her on her chest, calling her a “faggot” who “defends sodomites,” she said. Later, police launched tear gas at the crowd while beating protesters, including Amdouni, with batons, she said.

On February 6, Amdouni said, a group of men attacked her after she raised a rainbow flag at a peaceful protest in Tunis. She said police watched the attack, taunting her, but did not intervene.

“Theresa,” 21
On February 2, at 12 p.m., Theresa, a transgender woman, said police beat and ridiculed her during a protest in Tunis organized by the police, due to her gender expression. Activists said security forces have organized multiple protests to demand an “end to violence against them by protesters and protection of their dignity.” Human Rights Watch reviewed a video that shows the moment police officers attacked Theresa and threw her to the ground. She said:

I had no idea that it was a police protest. One of them said, “You are not one of us, you faggot scum. You and all the sodomites like you are the reason God has not blessed us with rainy seasons!” A large group of officers began beating me, threw me to the ground, and stomped on my head, then kicked me while I was begging them to stop. I ran away, but I’m terrified to leave my house.

Intensified Crackdown on LGBT Organizing

Ayadi said that people he believes to be police officers entered his residence in downtown Tunis on December 22, 2020 during his absence and tampered with his work files and devices. No valuables were taken. Human Rights Watch reviewed images of the apartment, which show a broken door and scattered files.

On the same day, police officers took a staff member of Damj from the street in Barcelone Square in Tunis and beat him in a police vehicle to compel him to share information about the association’s activities, he said. After three hours of interrogation, he said, police pushed him out of the vehicle near the Bab Alioua metro station.

Other staff members of the association told Human Rights Watch that the police frequently harass and intimidate them on the street or near Damj’s offices, including questioning them about the organization’s activities.

Badr Baabou, director of Damj, said unidentified people had burglarized his house in Nahj el-Bacha, Tunis, four times since 2018, stealing electronic devices, including his personal and work laptops. Baabou said his neighbors told him in March 2020 that police officers were watching his apartment and asked both his landlord and some of his neighbors about his work and whereabouts. He said that police told the neighbors, “This time it’s a light search, next time we will burn the house down,” Baabou said. “I have to keep staying at different places because I don’t feel safe anywhere.”

Baabou said that Damj’s offices have been broken into on multiple occasions, most recently in December 2019 when the office in the city of Sfax was burglarized and files taken. Baabou believes police officers most likely were behind the break-in because police in Sfax had threatened to raid the office.

Increased Abuses, Persecution of LGBT People

On December 8,
Tunisian police arrested two LGBT activists during a peaceful demonstration in front of the Tunisian parliament. The two were taken to the Bardo police station, then transferred to the Bouchoucha detention center, held for two days then conditionally released, pending investigation. The public prosecutor charged them with “damaging property,” punishable by up to three years, after they “banged on the windshield” in an attempt to stop a parliament member who had driven into a crowd of peaceful protesters, they said.

In October, police attacked and arrested three demonstrators, including LGBT activists, who were peacefully protesting a draft law that would limit criminal accountability for the use of excessive force by the security forces. The activists were accused of “protesting without a permit,” and “violating the state of emergency law.” They await trial.

In August, police officers guarding the French Embassy in Tunis physically and verbally assaulted transgender activists and incited bystanders to attack them.

In June, the Kef First Instance Tribunal sentenced two men charged with sodomy under article 230 of the penal code, to two years in prison, reduced to one year on appeal.

Ayadi said that in 2020, Damj provided legal assistance to LGBT people at police stations in 116 cases and responded to 185 requests for legal consultations. “These figures are five times higher than those we recorded in 2019, indicating an alarming increase in the persecution of LGBT people during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

The group said that since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, they have recorded 1,458 convictions, ranging between one month to three years in prison, based on article 230.

Tunisia’s Legal Obligations

Tunisia’s continued crackdown against activists violates their basic rights, including their right to privacy, bodily integrity, free movement, free expression, assembly, and association, including on the internet, as well as their right to nondiscrimination and protection under the law. The abuses violate Tunisia’s constitution and international treaties to which Tunisia is a party.

Article 37 of the Tunisian Constitution from 2014 guarantees the right to “assembly and peaceful demonstration,” also protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the Arab Charter of Human Rights, to which Tunisia is a state party.

The constitution allows for a lawyer to be present during interrogations and requires taking detainees before a prosecutor within 48 hours, immediately informing them of the reason for their arrest, and allowing them to contact a lawyer and family member. The constitution also prohibits “mental and physical torture.”

The right to privacy and nondiscrimination are reflected in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution. Article 24 obligates the government to protect the rights to privacy and the inviolability of the home. Article 21 provides that “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights explicitly calls on member states, including Tunisia, to protect sexual and gender minorities in accordance with the African Charter.

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