Human rights groups are condemning Tunisia for its treatment of gays, after authorities sentenced a man to a year in prison for sodomy and subjected him to an anal probe.
Although it's not rare for Tunisians to be arrested for homosexuality, the case has generated widespread attention after the accused went public and received unprecedented support from local and international human rights groups.
"It's an outrage," said Badr Baabou with the Tunisian Association for Equality and Justice, adding that the trial "resembles one from the [Spanish] Inquisition." A host of other Tunisian human rights organizations — including the newly formed LGBT NGO Shams — condemned the criminalization of sodomy, and called for greater awareness of homosexual persecution in the country.
"We can't be sure how many homosexuals are subject to this treatment," Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch's researcher in Tunis, told VICE News. "But we can say that persecution of homosexuals in Tunisia is not at all rare."
On Monday, Human Rights Watch joined the chorus of Tunisian organizations condemning the arrest:
"Tunisian authorities should immediately revoke the man's prison term and release him," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Police arrested the man, a university student whose name has not been made public, earlier this month in the Tunisian town of Hammam Sousse. According to his lawyer Fadoua Braham, police called in her client for questioning after his phone number was found on the body of a murdered man.
Though he had no connection to the murder itself, the student admitted to having a sexual relationship with the deceased. The police then opened an investigation into his "homosexuality" under article 230 of the Tunisian penal code — a controversial law that punishes sodomy with up to three years in prison.
"Another statement was drawn up and my client had to undergo an anal exam against his will," Braham said. The man was then subjected to an anal probe in a nearby hospital to "verify" whether he was indeed a homosexual. Prosecutors submitted the test as evidence in the trail, and the court found the man guilty of violating article 230. He was given a one year prison sentence on September 24.
"I don't understand why I was sentenced," the accused told the AFP afterwards. "I want to get out and resume a normal life…I wonder what I'm going to do about my job and studies. I don't want to be rejected by society." The case is currently being appealed.
Guellali with Human Rights Watch says the whole affair is emblematic of "widespread arbitrary law enforcement" practices in Tunisia, and shines a light on how out of step the country's legal system is with international norms. Prosecuting people for consensual sex, Human Rights Watch says, violates Tunisia's commitments under international law. And the practice of anal-probing constitutes torture under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — all of which Tunisia has ratified.
The unprecedented outcry from civil society groups, however, may be a sign that attitudes towards homosexuality are changing.
"The issue used to be much more taboo —there's undeniably an opening in civil society right now," Guellali said. "But given the legal system we have now, being gay in Tunisian is like living with a sword of Damocles over your head."
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