Tunisians mount bid to legalise homosexuality

Movement is growing, activists say, as Interior Ministry likens homosexuality ban to counterterrorism

Massoud Hayoun
New York
Tuesday 15 December 2015 18:45 GMT
Five years after a revolution unseated Tunisia's 23-year dictator, homosexuality remains illegal.
Five years after a revolution unseated Tunisia's 23-year dictator, homosexuality remains illegal.

Tunisia’s Interior Ministry on Tuesday likened the nation's war on homosexuality to its counterterrorism efforts, amid a mounting bid by rights activists to overturn anti-gay laws.

“Our function is to make people respect the law, whether in an affair of customs or terrorism,” Ministry spokesman Walid Louguini told Tunisian radio station ShemsFM. Mr Louguini did not respond to a request for further comment from The Independent.

The comment followed a report by The Independent on the sentencing of six teens, ages 18 and 19, to three years in prison — the maximum penalty for homosexuality. Following reports from their neighbors in the central-Tunisian city of Kairouan, police found women’s clothing and condoms at their shared flat. The items were used against them as evidence.

The boys’ attorney, Boutheina Karkni, told The Independent that she had appealed the ruling and would argue for a reduced sentence but not to overturn the conviction. Ms Karkni agrees with the law, she said, because “God forbids” homosexuality.

Tunisian gay rights advocates have said they are looking for alternative representation for the teenagers, whom they say, regardless of the law, are victims of an attack on the civil liberties guaranteed them by the Tunisian constitution.

Five years after the North African nation’s revolution overturned the 23-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked similar calls for change across the region, civil liberties advocates are locked in battle with social conservatives to overturn Article 230 of the penal code, which prohibits consensual “sodomy”.

“As in countries like Morocco, Lebanon and France, we have several organizations ready to stand up for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights here,” Bouhdid Belhadi, spokesman for Tunisian gay rights advocacy group Shams told The Independent. In response to the sentencing on Thursday, Shams and other groups have been meeting to “build an infrastructure for communication and coordination” with other rights groups and sympathetic lawmakers over the fight for gay rights, Mr Belhadi said. Mr Belhadi added that the Interior Ministry has told his organisation that "tens" of people are currently in prison over homosexuality, but that authorities have repeatedly refused to specify the number and identities of the convicts.

The six teens in Kairouan and the case of another young man referred to in media as “Marwan,” who was sentenced to a year in prison in September, have added fuel to the movement in recent months, Mr Belhadi said. Amnesty International in September reported that Marwan had undergone a state-appointed doctor’s “anal exam” to prove he had anal intercourse. Gay rights advocates have indicated to The Independent that despite a lack of credible information coming out of the six teens’ trial, they have reason to believe they went under a similar test, but Tunisian authorities were not immediately available to speak on the matter with The Independent.

“Many groups and political parties have declared after the Marwan affair that they support gay rights — the Social Liberal Party, Human Rights Watch,” Mr Belhadi said.

The activists in coming days will endeavor to prove to lawmakers that Article 230 is unconstitutional.

"Yes, Tunisia is an Arab and a Muslim country. But in the preamble of the constitution, it says that the country accepts universal human rights," Badr Baabou, president of gay rights group The Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality (Damj), told The Independent. "Articles 21, 23 and 24 guarantee everyone is equal under the law and that the government must protect the private lives of people. But in this case, the state has entered itself into people's private lives."

Mr Baabou also hopes to convince fellow Tunisians that homosexuality is not un-Islamic. Damj religious scholars have found that the Qur’an never specifically prohibits homosexuality, even it says that anal sex is a sin, Mr Baabou said.

Despite their support in civil society and among leftist politicians, Mr Belhadi says their chief task is getting allies to come out of the closet themselves.

“There are many people who are afraid to say they support homosexuals because of the law because of social conservatism,” he said. After an interview on Tunisia’s Nessma TV, Mr Belhadi says he has continuously received death threats from what he described as Salafists.

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