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Tunisian LGBT activist imprisoned after reporting police harassment

The concerns of civil society organizations and the international community have grown stronger regarding restrictions on personal freedoms after a Tunisian court ruled against LGBT rights activist Rania Amdouni.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Human Rights Watch reports that a Tunisian court sentenced LGBT rights activist Rania Amdouni to six months in prison March 4 and fined her 18 Tunisian dinars ($6.50) for shouting outside a police station after police officers refused to register her harassment complaint. The rights group said the ruling was appealed March 5.

“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 in its March 9 report.

On Feb. 27, Amdouni headed to a police station in downtown Tunis to file a complaint against the administrators of police unions' Facebook pages that published her photos and sent her rape and death threats. However, police officers at the station refused to register her complaint.

Amdouni, 26, is a prominent LGBT rights activist known for her participation in the protests calling for democracy. She became the target of police unions after taking part in protests condemning police repression in January.

One of Amdouni's lawyers, Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, who assumed her defense on behalf of the Damj Association for Justice and Equality, told Al-Monitor that Amdouni is now in a women's prison in Manouba, in the western part of Greater Tunis, following the emergency ruling against her. “Setting a date for an appeal in this miserable judiciary takes over a month, which means Amdouni would have served half her sentence by then,” he said.

Bouchiba said the officers in the police station refused to register Amdouni's complaint about repeated harassment by officers from the police unions in the streets and online because of her sexual orientation and against the backdrop of her participation in a protest against the law criminalizing attacks on security forces.

He said the officers proceeded to harass her as she tried to file her complaint.

Human Rights Watch reported that another lawyer for Amdouni, Hamadi Hanchiri, said Amdouni then shouted on the street outside the station and cursed the Tunisian police system.

Bouchiba said the public prosecutor at the Court of First Instance in Tunis referred to her behavior outside the station and accused her on March 1 of “verbally insulting an on-duty public official,” a crime punishable by up to a year in prison under Article 125 of the penal code, claiming she was in a “disorderly state.”

Bouchiba said, “Amdouni had filed five complaints against people sending her threatening letters, but none were followed through. However, an emergency ruling was issued against her in less than 72 hours.”

Article 125 of the penal code stipulates that anyone who insults public officials, be it verbally or physically, or threatens them, shall be punished with imprisonment for a year and a fine of 120 Tunisian dinars ($43.57). In a statement issued in July 2017, Human Rights Watch called on the Tunisian parliament to remove this article because it is a flagrant violation of human rights.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said in a March 8 interview on Elhiwar El-Tounsi channel on the occasion of International Women's Day that he sympathizes with Amdouni but cannot interfere with the judiciary. He did say, “I hope to see Amdouni outside prison walls.”

Speaking on the Midi Show on Mosaique FM on March 8, Bassam al-Tarifi, vice president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, said Amdouni does not deserve the six-month punishment, stressing that she is not a criminal but only an activist who loves life. He blamed the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry for what is happening.

In a joint statement March 7, 21 human rights organizations condemned Amdouni's imprisonment, saying it is a clear violation of legal procedures. They stressed the need to immediately release Amdrouni and drop the charges against her, calling on authorities to respect the constitution and to refrain from selectively implementing the laws on freedom of expression.

The Working Women Committee at the Tunisian General Labor Union published a statement March 7 marking International Women's Day and calling for Amdouni's release. “She is a victim of police repression and failure to accept the right to be different,” the committee said.

Naila Zoghlami, secretary-general of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women defending women’s rights, told Al-Monitor that Amdouni has been subjected to a flagrant violation of her rights and legal procedures. This proves that the Tunisian government's claims that it is committed to protecting individual freedoms are false, she said, stressing that Tunisian authorities should investigate police harassment.

“Tunisia has made important steps since the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the field of freedom of expression and human rights, but the security and police apparatus still needs more reforms,” Zoghlami added.

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