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Badr Baabou, director of Damj Association for Justice and Equality, following his assault by suspected police officers in Tunisia.  © 2021 Badr Baabou

Two police officers apparently brutally attacked the director of a Tunis-based LGBT rights group on October 21, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on Badr Baabou took place against a backdrop of mounting abuses targeting LGBT activists by Tunisian security forces.

Baabou, the director of Damj Association for Justice and Equality, told Human Rights Watch that two men ambushed him in downtown Tunis on October 21 at 9 p.m., as he was on his way home. One was wearing an Internal Security Forces vest and the other was wearing police boots.

“The assault on Badr Baabou was a dangerous attempt to silence him and other LGBT rights activists,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian authorities should urgently respond to Baabou’s complaint, investigate the incident, and hold the attackers accountable.”

The attackers took Baabou’s wallet, identification documents, mobile phone, and his work laptop, which contains confidential information about the organization’s beneficiaries. Damj and Baabou have filed scores of complaints against the police on behalf of LGBT people who had been assaulted by security forces since the organization was founded in 2005.

“After they pushed me to the ground and stole my devices, the police officers repeatedly punched and kicked me,” Baabou said in a phone interview. “One placed his boot on my neck so I would stop screaming. I couldn’t breathe.” He said that when bystanders tried to intervene, one of the men said, “We are the police. This is the penalty for those who insult the police and file complaints against us.”

During street protests against economic privations and political paralysis that began in Tunisia in January 2021, Tunisian security forces have repeatedly singled out LGBT activists for mistreatment, including arbitrary arrests, physical assaults, threats to rape and kill, and refusing access to legal counsel. People who identified themselves on social media as police officers “outed” LGBT activists and revealed their personal information, including home addresses and phone numbers, and threatened them with violence.

The assailants called Baabou by his full name, cursed him and his work on defending LGBT rights, and threatened him with death, he said. On October 25, Baabou registered a complaint at the public prosecutor’s office in Tunis First Instance Court, against the director general of national security, director of the Tunis Region, and the two alleged officers.

Baabou’s medical report, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states that he had a concussion and injuries to his neck, rib cage, eye, and face from repeated punches and kicks. Baabou’s doctor said that he needed monitoring for 15 days due to the severity of his injuries. The report says that he suffered multiple hematomas, a 2–4-centimeter blunt force trauma to the head and forehead near his eye, as well as a trauma to the rib cage.

Human Rights Watch has documented assaults, arrests, and home and office raids by security forces against Tunisian LGBT activists every year since 2018, including raids on Baabou’s house and Damj’s office.

The abuses at protests followed an intensified crackdown on LGBT organizing in recent years. Members of Damj Association told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions since 2018 intruders had forcibly entered their residences as well as Damj’s offices during their absence and tampered with work files and devices. Police, whom they suspect of conducting the break-ins, had threatened and questioned staff members about the organization’s activities.

Baabou said unidentified people had burglarized his house in Nahj el-Bacha, in downtown Tunis, four times since 2018, stealing electronic devices, including personal and work laptops. He said his neighbors told him in March 2020 that police officers were watching his apartment and asked his landlord and some 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.” “I have to keep staying at different places because I don’t feel safe anywhere,” he said.

In December 2020, police arrested two LGBT activists during a peaceful demonstration in front of the Tunisian parliament. The two were held for two days then conditionally released, pending investigation. The public prosecutor charged them with “damaging property,” punishable by up to three years in prison, after they “banged on the windshield” to stop a parliament member who had driven into a crowd of peaceful protesters, they said. Their trial is ongoing.

In August 2020, police guarding the French Embassy in Tunis physically and verbally assaulted transgender activists and incited bystanders to attack them.

Police targeting of LGBT activists violates their basic rights, including the right to privacy, bodily integrity, free movement, free expression, assembly, and association as well as their right to nondiscrimination and protection under the law.

The rights to privacy and nondiscrimination are reflected in articles 24 and 21 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution. The criminalization of same-sex relations, under article 230 of the penal code, leaves LGBT people in Tunisia particularly vulnerable to discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. 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.

“LGBT activists and organizers do not feel safe on the streets of Tunisia,” Younes said. “Tunisian authorities have a responsibility to investigate the attack on Badr Baabou and ensure the safety of activists who are doing important work in a climate of intimidation and violence.”

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