TUNIS, Tunisia – On an otherwise normal late winter evening, Rania Amdouni, a human rights defender and prominent LGBTQ rights activist, was dining in a restaurant when a police officer approached her and launched a tirade of homophobic abuse her way.
But when Amdouni reported the officer at the nearest police station in the Bab Bhar neighbourhood of Tunis, she was the one that was arrested, and charged with insulting a public officer on duty, apparent drunkenness and causing embarrassment and disruption.
On top of that, while in custody, Amdouni was subject to yet more harassment by more police officers, her lawyer Hamadi Henchiri said, and later sentenced to six months of detention.
“Similar tactics, provocations and imputations are of common practice against LGBTQ people in Tunisia,” Henchiri said.
Numerous protests calling for her release followed, and after an appeal hearing held two weeks into her sentence, Amdouni was freed. In an interview with VICE World News, she said that in addition to being abused at the Bab Bhar police station, she was also sexually assaulted by officers while being transported to Manouba Prison.
“When I arrived at the prison it was overcrowded and I had to sleep on the ground, and my requests to have my medication for my chronic illness were denied,” Amdouni said, adding that on the day of her appeal hearing authorities tried to force her to wear a Safsari – a traditional Tunisian veil which covers the whole body – before the judge.
A month before her arrest, Amdouni had been the victim of online abuse, initiated, alongside others, by Seif Eddine Makhlouf – the leader of the Al Karama political party – and a pro-Tunisian police force Facebook page that has half a million followers. Members posted Amdouni’s personal contact information, including her address, and shared fake information about her gender identity.
Following the incident, an online solidarity campaign was initiated in support of Amdouni. Hundreds of people, including civil rights associations and popular filmmakers and actors, took to social media to highlight Amdouni’s fight for LGBTQ rights in the country.
The abuse and persecution suffered by Amdouni is sadly not uncommon in Tunisia.
According to a study by LGBTQ rights associations in the MENA region, including Tunisian DAMJ and Mawjoudin (We Exist), and financed by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, more than 60 percent of people identifying as LGBTQ in the region have been victims of cyberattacks or cyberbullying. More than 46 percent of the respondents declared that the attacks were based on their sexual preferences or gender identity or expression, and over 14 percent reported that those attacks turned into physical violence.
The study revealed that people who identify as transgender are at a higher risk of experiencing cyber-offences. Over 80 percent of trans people reported being victims of cyberbullying, which in 80 percent of cases turned into physical abuse. The 93.7 percent of trans respondents declared they would not report crimes against them to the police.
Ahmed el Tounsi, 38, a trans man from Tunis, told VICE World News that much of the physical and online abuse he has experienced was at the hands of the Tunisian police. One of his worst experiences began in February when a group of police officers asked him for his ID while he was walking back home.
“I only own pre-transition IDs so when I showed it to them they accused me of having stolen someone else’s identity card,” he said. El Tounsi said he is used to such incidents, but the day after insulting and mocking him over his gender identity, officers forced him into their van and beat him.
“After ten minutes they opened the door of the van and let me out. I then asked them for my ID and one of the police officers threw it on the ground and when I reached to collect it he kicked me in the stomach.”
Sexual relationships between people of the same gender are illegal under article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code and can be punished by up to three years in prison following a forced “anal test” that has been condemned by human rights and medical groups. Transgender people however are targeted by 226 II on public indecency, said Ali Bousselmi of the LGBTQ rights group Mawjoudin.
Article 226 II states that anyone who publicly violates good morals or public morals by gesture or speech is punished with six months imprisonment and a fine.
“It’s difficult to say whether there was a spike in abuse against the LGBTQ community but more violent episodes could also be due to a higher visibility of the community,” said Bousselmi.
Recent assaults on individual freedoms – such as the arrest of activists over posts they wrote against the Tunisian government on Facebook – are testing the frailty of Tunisia’s decade-old democracy.
On the 17th of January this year police arrested 25-year-old Ahmed Ghram from his house in Southern Tunis and confiscated his phone and his laptop. After 11 days of detention, Ghram was acquitted and documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch confirm that the main cause behind his arrest was Facebook posts denouncing government corruption.
Two days before the arrest of Ghram, 21-years-old Ahmed Gam from the coastal town of Monastir was also taken by police forces while at work with the accusation of taking part in protests. While detained, Gam says he was tortured until being hospitalised.
During an interview broadcast over a month ago by TV channel El Hiwar Ettounsi, a spokesperson for the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) said that there is concrete evidence to demonstrate that the majority of people detained did not take part in the protests.
A letter addressed to Tunisian President Kais Saïed, dated the 11th of March and signed by 70 rights and freedoms bodies – including the Tunisian National Union of Journalists and the LTDH – called on the release of over 2,000 people, of whom 500 are minors, who have been arrested since nationwide protests began in January.
The country’s LGBTQ community, which is also often at the forefront of social movements of protest through associations like DAMJ – which promotes justice and equality – is then further exposed and at higher risk in a country that per se is still conservative.
Tunisians who identify as LGBTQ can apply for asylum to safer countries but the approval rates for requests from Tunisia are around 5 percent. The two countries receiving the highest number of applications are Spain and Italy, followed by France, Germany and the Netherlands. According to the EU’s Asylum Support Office (EASO), there are currently over 400 requests being made per month from Tunisia and over 1,200 pending cases.
While the EASO’s data indicates that the majority of asylum requests are processed within six months, the time between sending the application and getting a first instance decision (before being able to apply again), can be a daunting experience for many, as in the case of Ayoub Khalsi.
On the 2nd of February, Khalsi was live-streaming a protest organised by police syndicates in Central Tunis when some of the protesters – in large part police officers and their relatives – attacked him. Khalsi said that his aggressors are police officers, but VICE World News could not verify the information.
In the live Facebook video that Khalsi saved on his profile one of his aggressors can be heard asking him whether he is a colleague in the police forces or not, before insulting him and then pushing him to the ground and beating him.
“Some police officers standing inside their van saw the scene and when I went to ask for their help they verbally abused me and told me they could do nothing,” Khalsi said, adding that he has been living in anxiety over his request for asylum in France being denied.
When he went to the police station to denounce what had happened a police officer told him “not to dare contacting DAMJ or one of their lawyers” and that he should come back another day.
“I never went back to the station out of fear,” said Khalsi. “I’m even afraid to go outside of the house.”