Five years after the revolution of « Dignity », the country is still transitioning. Many observers praised Tunisia’s “budding democracy” and celebrated its last milestones : a new constitution, new promised democratic institutions, new political actors and just recently the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of civil society organizations. All of these achievements garnered international attention and raised expectations for the country’s advancement on the democratic path.
However, recent events call for a serious re-evaluation of such achievements. Following a plethora of human rights violations, the Tunisian civil society realized that the fight for dignity has just begun.
Police Abuse: The Situation is Alarming
“Ben Ali is gone, all the faces changed but the system is still the same, the police are still corrupt; they are still terrorizing us” said Afraa Benazza in an interview by Nawaat; a Tunisian 17-year-old student who was arrested in the City of Kef on December 16th when she was on her way to protest against the demolition of a local historical site that was to be replaced it with a guest house.
Afraa claims that she was humiliated, sexually harassed and physically and verbally abused by various officers in the police station for expressing her opinion on her Facebook wall. Despite being a minor, she was detained there all night and wasn’t allowed to call her mother or a lawyer.
The next day on December the 17th-which marks exactly 5 years from the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution-Afraa was still in custody. She receives threats from the Chief of Police himself vowing that “they will come for her once she turns 18” before being released.
This incident sheds light on the multiple violations against Tunisian people and the arbitrary conduct of police officers, as does the case of Adnen Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk, two young Carthage Film Festival volunteers who were arrested for breaching the curfew and were beaten-up and charged with drug use because of a pack of rolling papers found in their car.
Indecency seems to be the favorite excuse for police to harass youth, ranging from arresting adults for consensual sexual activity to harassing teenagers for holding hands in front of their high-school, to handing out jail sentences for having pornography on one’s personal computer!
These practices speak to the Tunisian collective memory of the history of police despotism and prosecutions in the name of “ethics”. The same could be said about the out-dated Tunisian penal code.
The Tunisian Penal Code: Medieval and Unconstitutional
The police abuses that have just been mentioned are only the first seconds of the nightmare. The bodily integrity of Tunisian citizens is violated in the name of a penal code that heavily criminalizes homosexuality (A.230), adultery (A.236) and cannabis use (A.52), and routinely performs anal and vaginal exams and urine testing in complicity with forensic doctors.
Statistics are rather terrifying when it comes to the number of people jailed for cannabis use under the article 52 of the penal code; more than 7000 Tunisians, or more than a third of the incarcerated population.
For the most part, these prisoners are college-aged men who were denied their right to freedom and education for the simple mistake of smoking a joint. Once incarcerated, these vulnerable individuals are often subjected to multiple forms of abuse and brainwashing, especially from Islamist fundamentalists.
If the law’s way of dealing with cannabis users seems outdated, ineffective and rather destructive, it is totally unconstitutional when it comes to criminalizing same sex relationships. The article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code criminalizes ‘sodomy and lesbianism’, and carries a maximum prison term of three years. This article is anti-constitutionnal according to Pr. Wahid Ferchichi as it violates the right to dignity and bodily integrity granted by the Article 23 of the Tunisian constitution. It also violates the Article 21 which declares the principle of non-discrimination.
(In Arabic: Article 230, till when?)
In fact, marking the International Day for Human Rights, six Tunisian men were sentenced to three years in prison for sodomy after being subjected to anal exams; “a shocking example of deep-rooted state sanctioned discrimination against LGBTI people in the country”, said Amnesty International in a press release.
Anal exams are considered as an act of torture by international human rights conventions and are discredited as unscientific by Amnesty International.
The men were also banned from residing in their city (Kairouan) for a period of five years, citing Articles 5 and 22 of the penal code. “According to a lawyer involved in the case, this is the first known case in which such punishment has been used in recent years”, says the same release. This sentence is a serious attack on the freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 24 of the Tunisian constitution and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In reaction to these last events, Tunisian social and mainstream media has been boiling. And while the vast majority had shown great support to Afraa, opinions were divided regarding the topic of homosexuality.
LGBT associations and groups in Tunisia denounce the homophobic speech spread by mainstream media, dehumanizing homosexuals and potentially fueling hate crimes like the recent heinous murder carried by a 23 year old man against his gay brother in Zaghouan, as was reported by the LGBTI association “Without Restrictions”.
Human Rights Defenders: United and Loud
Human rights organizations and LGBTI associations in Tunisia stood up together against the state’s homophobic practices. Human Rights Watch and 13 other organisations and associations published a common press release to denounce the Article 230 and to end the “gross invasion of private life and bodily integrity”, said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch.
Celebrities, artists, university professors, bloggers and human rights activists were featured in an online campaign launched by LGBTQI association “Mawjoudin We Exist” on December 10th, the International Human Rights Day, to advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia.
“We started our campaign “We Exist, But We are Criminalized” at this symbolic date, the day we received the Nobel Peace Price and 6 Tunisian citizens were sentenced to jail and banned from their city because of their sexual orientation. It was such a contradiction and we wanted to raise awareness about this inequality. We aim to abrogate the article 230 and to have a law that protects homosexuals against hate crimes.” said Ali Bousselmi, co-founder of “Mawjoudin”.
The human rights defenders are united as well against what they have called in another common press release “the draconian actions of the state”, calling to amend the Article 52 and to abrogate Articles 230 and 236.
The Tunisian civil society is aware that the fight for dignity, freedom and complete equality shouldn’t only be led in the halls of the parliament and against the political power but also it has to reach every house and every screen in a increasingly radicalized society. Tunisian Youth are looking for answers and the state does not give them any. They are therefore the prey of terrorist organisations and groups.
The challenges are multiple and critical but hope lies in the strong will of human rights defenders who refuse to remain silent.
“The police try to control you, your life, your freedoms and even your genitals. We must stand together now for our dignity before it’s too late.” said Afraa, calling all concerned citizens to join the ongoing combat for dignity.