(Beirut) – A Tunisian court sentenced a prominent LGBT rights activist on March 4, 2021, to six months in prison and a fine for shouting outside a police station after officers refused to register her harassment complaint, Human Rights Watch said today. The activist, Rania Amdouni, 26, is in a women’s prison in Manouba, west of Tunis, where her lawyer said she has faced harassment by prison guards due to her gender expression.
Police arrested Amdouni on February 27 at 8 p.m. after she left the 7 eme police station in downtown Tunis in a distraught state, said her lawyer Hamadi Hanchiri. At the station, Hanchiri said, police officers had refused to register Amdouni’s complaint relating to repeated harassment she said police officers subjected her to on the street and online. Police officers in the station then proceeded to harass her based on her presumed sexual orientation and gender expression. Amdouni began shouting on the street outside the station and cursing the Tunisian police system, Hanchiri reported.
“The police response to Amdouni’s complaint keeps her from getting protection and undermines public confidence in law enforcement and the Tunisian justice system,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting and sentencing Amdouni, Tunisian authorities are sending an appalling message to victims of discrimination that they have nowhere to turn and that any objection could land them in prison themselves.”
Based on her behavior outside the station, Hanchiri said, on March 1 the prosecutor of the Tunis First Instance Tribunal charged Amdouni with “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duty,” punishable by up to one year in prison under article 125 of the penal code, “causing embarrassment and disruption,” and “apparent drunkenness.” On March 4, the Cantonal Court in Montfleury, southwest of Tunis, found Amdouni guilty on all charges and sentenced her to six months in prison and a fine of 18 Tunisian dinars ($6.50). The lawyer submitted an appeal on March 5.
Hanchiri, who took on Amdouni’s defense on behalf of Damj Association, a Tunis-based LGBT rights group, said that her case file presented in court included no evidence of her targeting a police officer at the station or on the street, or any indication that she had been drunk. The case file says that Amdouni was in a “disorderly state” and had “offended police honor” by shouting and cursing outside the station, as a basis for her conviction, Hanchiri said.
Amdouni was leaving a restaurant in downtown Tunis on February 27 when a police officer in the street began verbally harassing her and ridiculing her based on her gender expression, which prompted her to go to the nearest police station and file a complaint. “Amdouni has been facing consistent harassment by police in the street and online for months, which caused her to suffer severe mental health consequences and break down,” Hanchiri said.
Mohammed Amin Hdeiji, a lawyer who accompanied Amdouni to the 7 eme police station on February 27, told Human Rights Watch that police officers in the station ridiculed Amdouni’s appearance and harassed her based on her presumed sexual orientation. “Eight police officers surrounded her and repeatedly insulted her, and one told her, ‘You are a homosexual, you will not win against us, and we will not allow you to defame police officers,’” Hdeiji said.
Hanchiri spoke to Amdouni, who told him that at the Manouba women’s prison where she is detained, women prison guards have repeatedly entered her cell at night while she was sleeping, insulted her using derogatory language relating to her sexual orientation and gender expression, and threatened her for attempting to complain about the police, he said.
Human Rights Watch has documented violations by Tunisian security forces against activists at protests, including targeting LGBT activists with arbitrary arrests, physical assault, threats to rape and kill them, and refusing them access to legal counsel. Amdouni’s case was among those Human Rights Watch documented, which included police singling her out at protests due to her gender expression and LGBT rights activism.
In an interview in February before her arrest, Amdouni told Human Rights Watch that since January she has been subjected to online harassment, bullying, and threats of violence, including death and rape. Human Rights Watch reviewed many of the Facebook posts, including by individuals who identified themselves as police officers, harassing Amdouni based on her gender expression and presumed sexual orientation. A member of parliament, Seif Eddine Makhlouf, ridiculed her on his personal Facebook page based on her gender expression. Amdouni has since deleted her social media accounts.
On January 11, the police searched for Amdouni near her residence, and asked neighbors if she was there, which prompted her to leave her neighborhood and hide out, she said: “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.”
The right to privacy and nondiscrimination are reflected in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution under article 24 and article 21, respectively. However, the absence of accountability and reliable complaint systems, as well as the lack of nondiscrimination legislation based sexual orientation and gender identity under domestic law, limit LGBT people’s access to redress, creating an environment in which police may abuse them with impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tunisia has ratified, stated that, “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties […]. Moreover, all public figures […] are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
Tunisia’s parliament should reform article 125 of the penal code because of the various ways that it can be interpreted by authorities to limit free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
The Yogyakarta Principles, on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, instruct states to “[…] prevent and provide protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, perpetrated for reasons relating to the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim, as well as the incitement of such acts.”
Tunisian authorities should ensure that complaints, including Amdouni’s, are handled confidentially and swiftly, following a clear procedure, and that people can submit complaints without fear of reprisals, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also ensure that no victim of discrimination is denied assistance, arrested, or harassed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The Tunisian government claims it is committed to protecting individual freedoms, but prosecuting individuals who report violations of their rights shows that this rhetoric does not match reality,” Younes said. “Tunisian authorities should investigate allegations of police harassment against Amdouni and stop using the judicial system to persecute her.”
This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.