On Human Rights Day, a Tunisian Court Sent Six Men to Prison For Being Gay

Five years after a revolution transformed Tunisia, the country still has a long way to go on human rights.

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TUNIS, Tunisia — Six young men were sentenced to prison for being gay on December 10 in Kairouan, an ancient Tunisian city just over 100 miles from the capital. Ironically enough, the court announced its decision on International Human Rights Day. The six were accused of sodomy under Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality. The conviction followed an anal examination by police, a practice described by Amnesty International as “torture when carried out involuntarily.” The organization called for their immediate release and described the conviction as “a shocking example of deep-rooted state sanctioned discrimination against LGBTI people.”

Five years since fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in desperate protest against social injustice, it’s clear that post-revolutionary Tunisia has made achievements on some issues while stagnating, or even regressing, on others.

The incident is not unprecedented. Tunisia’s LGBT community remains a persecuted minority whose existence is barely acknowledged; the belief that homosexuality is foreign to Tunisia is widespread and often repeated by politicians. In a press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Habib Essid addressed the challenges of respecting human rights while fighting terrorism. But he was referring to the rights of the majority. The country has been under a state of emergency since the November 24 bus bombing in downtown Tunis. A resulting curfew, which made life difficult for everyone in the capital, was not lifted until earlier this week. The prime minister did not mention that the rights of minorities — especially LGBT rights — are often violated under the same justification.

The state of emergency allows security forces to raid houses without warrants. The six young students were arrested after police raided a university dorm in a suburb of Kairouan.

The three-year prison sentence is not the only shocking thing about this incident. Only one of the six students was represented by a lawyer. (Many Tunisians are unaware that they have the right to a lawyer, and police frequently fail to ensure they receive representation.) One of the six received an additional six months for “indecency,” since the police found pornography on his laptop.

It gets worse. The strangest detail about this case is that the convicted men will be banned from Kairouan for five years after their release from prison. The ban is justified by the fact that the city is considered holy — it has a long tradition as a center of religious scholarship, a status that Tunisia’s legal system apparently considers incompatible with homosexuality. Activists and legal experts contend that such a ban is unprecedented and illegal, since it is not stipulated by law.

Tunisia’s new constitution, drafted in the wake of a revolution that toppled a dictator and ended decades of tyranny, is considered a crowning achievement of the popular uprising and civil society’s efforts to advance democracy. But now it’s failing to protect even basic rights, such as privacy and nondiscrimination. As a Tunisian journalist, I am ashamed to have to report on such violations just a few months after writing about the Nobel Peace Prize received by representatives of Tunisian civil society

We should, of course, celebrate our achievements as a young democracy. But perhaps we should make sure that we’re actually respecting basic human rights first. The Tunisian Penal Code is old and outdated. Many activists and lawyers such as Amna Guellali, of Human Rights Watch Tunisia, and Ghazi Mrabet, a well-known activist and politician, have called for reforming it. And there’s no reason why such efforts have to take a backseat to the fight against terrorism. Indeed, making Tunisia a freer and fairer society for all is the best weapon against extremists of all kinds.

In the photo, a Tunisian Police Special Unit agent stands guard on the roof of the Okba Ibn Nafaa mosque in the central Tunisian city of Kairouan on May 19, 2013.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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