TUNIS, Tunisia -- A prominent LGBTQ activist in Tunisia has reported that two men, one dressed in police uniform, threw him to the ground, beat and kicked him during an assault they said was punishment for his “insulting” attempts to file complaints against officers for previous mistreatment.
“This was not the first time that I had been attacked by a policeman, but I was really surprised. The attack was horrifying,” Badr Baabou, president of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, or Damj, 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.”
The Oct. 21 attack in Tunisia's capital left Baabou with welts and bruises on his face and body. He said that neck trauma caused difficulty breathing, and that his assailants took his laptop, phone and wallet. Police have not publicly commented on Baabou's account, although his lawyer says an internal police investigation is underway.
Police violence is among the myriad challenges that LGBTQ people experience in Tunisia. Observers say officers who can dispense beatings with impunity are becoming increasingly brazen. Homosexual activity in the North African country remains a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
Sexual relations involving individuals of the same sex also are illegal in most 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% 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.
But observers say the October assault in the center of Tunis indicates that members of law enforcement are becoming more explicit in targeting LGBTQ individuals. Baabou’s reported abuse also highlights a pattern of officers independently seeking revenge for efforts by LGBTQ activists to bring misconduct cases against police who harassed or assaulted them, they say.
“Usually the police are technicians of torture or abuse. They don’t leave fractures or bruises," Baabou’s lawyer, Hammadi Henchiri, said. But in the beating Baabou received and two similar cases Henchiri has worked on 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 said during an interview with The Associated Press. “They don’t think that we are normal civilians.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Rasha Younes says that while police attacks have been ongoing, recent attacks show that they are becoming more “public” and “unabashed” in their mistreatment of LGBT Tunisians. A “climate of criminalization” has also emboldened police, she says.
“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.
Despite democratic gains since the Tunisian revolution, the country remains socially conservative and there is little political will to push for decriminalizing homosexuality.
LGBTQ Tunisians are subject to stigma and abuse in many facets of life. Many are ostracized by their families, face unemployment and experience homelessness. Police can still carry out anal examinations on people suspected of sodomy.
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.
Observers point to the weeks of antigovernment protests this year as a turning point. Facebook pages linked to police unions began posting photos of LGBTQ activists at the protests, often captured using drones that flew over the crowds, and in some cases forcibly outing individuals to the public.
LGBTQ activist Rania Amdouni said her visibility at the protests led to a campaign of vicious online harassment linked to the union's activities. Some officers harrassed her when she was on her way to a police state to file a complaint, and Amdouni wound up arrested for allegedly assaulting one of them, she said. Activists say that is a common tactic used by police officers to justify extralegal arrests.
Amdouni received a six-month prison sentence. After nongovernmental associations and lawyers intervened, she was released after 19 days and later given asylum in France, where she now resides.
“Why did the police arrest me? 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,” she said.
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.”