LGBTQ Community in Tunisia Forcibly Outed to Public, Face Police Brutality: Activists

Tunisian LGBTQ activists are demanding change after a series of brutal attacks and harassment campaigns.

The Associated Press interviewed activists in the North African country, including Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality President Badr Baabou. He was subjected to an attack in October by a police officer and an accomplice, in which he was thrown to the ground and beaten. Baabou claims that the duo justified it because of his "insulting" attempts to file complaints against mistreatment.

"This was not the first time that I had been attacked by a policeman, but I was really surprised. The attack was horrifying," he said. "They aimed for my head...at a moment they stood on my neck. This was very symbolic for me, as if they wanted to reduce me to silence."

Police brutality cases such as Baabou's are not the only thing that many LGBTQ individuals in Tunisia face. They are often denied employment opportunities, face homelessness, and are even outed to the public by posting drone photos of activists online.

Activist Rania Amdouni's outing led to an online harassment campaign with ties to Tunisian police unions. She was harassed by officers while attempting to file a complaint and subsequently arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer. She received a six-month prison sentence but was released after 19 days.

"Why did the police arrest me?" she asked AP. "Because I was among the main organizers of the protest, because I was very visible, because I openly declare that I'm a lesbian, that I'm a feminist, that I'm queer."

Police attacks and other forms of harassment are becoming more public, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Rasha Younes. She said that a "climate of criminalization" around LGBTQ people has led to officers becoming bolder than ever in their methods.

"Officers feel empowered to enact whatever form of violence they want, knowing that they will get away with it because the law is on their side," she said.

Amdouni is currently living in France under asylum, while Baabou's case is receiving an internal investigation.

Badr Baabou
Police violence is among myriad challenges facing LGBTQ individuals in Tunisia. Observers say that the recent assault of high-profile LGBTQ activist Badr Baabou is an indication that law enforcement is becoming more brazen in targeting LGBTQ individuals. Above, Baabou talks to the Associated Press during an interview in Tunis on October 27, 2021. AP Photo/Hassene Dridi

Sexual relations involving individuals of the same sex are illegal in most of the Middle-East-North Africa region, although public attitudes toward LGBTQ rights vary according to each country's socio-economic context and religious doctrines.

A 2019 study by the Arab Barometer showed that acceptance of homosexuality is low or extremely low across the region. In Algeria, the 26 percent of respondents who said being gay was acceptable represented the highest share in the region.

Although there are signs that attitudes towards Tunisia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are improving, activists say police grew emboldened following antigovernment protests this year as the country's economy flailed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Interior Ministry and the leading police union did not respond to requests for comment on activists' charges.

Baabou is a veteran activist who founded his first LGBTQ rights group in 2002, when autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still ruled Tunisia. In March, he reported that four men beat him up as he left a bar. In 2016, some civilians beat him so badly he lost seven teeth.

"Usually the police are technicians of torture or abuse. They don't leave fractures or bruises," said Baabou's lawyer, Hammadi Henchiri. But in the beating Baabou received and two similar cases Henchiri has worked on in recent months, "I have noticed an unusual severity," the lawyer said.

After the 2011 revolution that deposed Ben Ali, tens of thousands of officers took advantage of new-found freedoms to unionize. But rights groups say Tunisia's now-powerful police unions enable misconduct while the government turns a blind eye to brutality.

"Policemen think that LGBTQ people are weak people, that they can't stand up for their rights," Baabou told AP. "They don't think that we are normal civilians."

Despite democratic gains since the Tunisian revolution, the country remains socially conservative and there is little political will to push for decriminalizing homosexuality.

Transgender people are not recognized at an administrative or medical level, meaning they are unable to access gender-affirming procedures or to legally change their names, leaving them vulnerable to harassment or violence.

"Existing as an LGBT person in Tunisia is a daily struggle," Baabou said. "LGBT people do not have space within the law so they cannot find their space in society. They are on the margins."

Damj has noted an increase in the persecution of LGBT people during the coronavirus pandemic. The organization provided legal assistance to LGBT individuals at police stations in 116 cases and responded to 195 legal consultation requests. The combined number is five times higher than in previous years, according to the group.

As Tunisia has sunk more deeply into a political and economic crisis, with President Kais Saied taking on sweeping powers in July that threatened the country's democracy, it has become more difficult for activists to keep LGBT rights on the agenda.

While Baabou thinks that the decriminalization of homosexuality is unlikely any time soon, he is more optimistic about "middle term" prospects. He points to shifting language around LGBT rights in Tunisia and the movement receiving support from other civil rights groups.

"Now, we can put pressure and we can free people [from jail]. In the past, this wasn't possible at all," he said.

His lawyer says the criminal investigation into the October attack against Baabou has made little progress so far, although police launched an internal affairs investigation to identify the two assailants.

"This is a first," Henchiri said. "Perhaps this time around, we will get justice."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tunisia Protest
Tunisian LGBTQ activists are demanding change after a series of brutal attacks and harassment campaigns. Above, demonstrators gather in support of transgender rights during a silent march denouncing violence against women along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the center of Tunisia's capital, Tunis, on December 10, 2021. Photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images