Showing posts with label Tunisia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tunisia. Show all posts

May 25, 2016

Despite Threats and Attacks Gay Tunisians Keep Fighting for Gay Rights

TUNISIA -— Abdelbraki Mezin asked me over coffee last week if homophobia was dead in the United States.

“I mean, you’ve had marriage equality for almost a year, surely that’s enough time,” the Tunisian human rights defender said. His partner, Bouhdid Belhedi, laughed, adding, “Yes, much like winning the Nobel Peace Prize solved all of Tunisia’s human rights issues.”
Mezin and Belhedi are LGBT rights defenders in Tunisia. As members of Tunisia’s first organization working openly for LGBT rights, they have suffered attacks, death threats, and lost family relationships.

Criminalizing Sexuality

Homosexuality is illegal in Tunisia, punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 230 of the penal code. Introduced by the French during colonial rule, Article 230 criminalizes “sodomy” in the original French text, and “homosexual acts” in Arabic. It’s a wider net that applies to men and women.

In 2010, protests in Tunisia marked the start of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, and the country’s new democracy has been dubbed the “Arab Spring’s sole success story.” Its civil society is so revered that the country’s National Dialogue Quartet won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to building a “pluralistic” democracy post-revolution.

Tunisia also made headlines in 2015 when authorities legally registered Shams, the country’s first organization openly working for LGBT rights. Yet, despite the seemingly positive step, the government did nothing to amend the criminalization of homosexuality in the penal code. This means that human rights defenders (HRDs) promoting sexual rights and protecting LGBT survivors of attack, discrimination, and rape are working for the rights of people who — according to the law — have committed a crime.

We are defending people who, according to the government, deserve no defense.
Mariam Manai, a Tunisian LGBT rights defender, met with me during a break in the packed program of Chouftouhonna, a feminist art festival put on by Chouf Minorities in Tunis. Manai said that repealing Article 230 is “not just the most important step for protecting the community, but a critical step for HRDs.”

“If homosexuality is a crime, there’s no legal framework for the rights we defend,” she said. “If someone is attacked, we can’t report it. If someone needs medical care, they’re too scared to go to the hospital because they might be arrested. We are defending people who, according to the government, deserve no defense.”

Normalizing Attacks

HRDs in Tunisia say that Article 230 makes seeking justice for survivors of assault nearly impossible, and that police are often complicit in crimes against LGBT people. Mezin said that because homosexuality is a crime, survivors are treated as criminals and subjected to violent physical examinations to prove their “guilt.”

“The police are performing anal exams on male victims of homophobic attacks,” he said. “In front of other police officers, someone claiming to be a doctor puts on a glove and ‘proves’ the victim is guilty of sodomy. The police then ask for a confession and usually put the man in jail. Some victims have confidentially reported to us that in order to ensure he ‘failed’ the anal exam, police raped him in the van after his arrest and before the exam. This is torture, and a violation of international human rights and our own constitution. But because Article 230 exists, the police act with impunity against LGBT victims.”

HRDs are quick to point out that the penal code — and the police violence it seems to allow — is only one element of the problem. Belhedi said that local religious leaders are also contributing to a climate in which “normal Tunisians think homophobic violence is acceptable, and even deserved.”
Two weeks ago, three men attacked Belhedi on a busy street at nine in the morning.
“When the men insulted me and grabbed me, people just watched. When they started to beat me, people just watched. When the beating got brutal enough someone stepped in and the men ran away. Violence against LGBT people has been normalized, even called for, in our laws and in our mosques.”

He told ThinkProgress that in his home region of Hammamet, imams leading local prayers have called on followers to attack Tunisians “who act gay.” At least two mentioned Belhedi by name. He said that last year “Islamic extremists” came to his house and threatened his mother, telling her that her son’s LGBT advocacy was “against Islam.”

Yet, despite the strong social prejudices that put Bouhdid and other LGBT defenders at risk, he remains adamant that a legal change — repealing Article 230 — is the critical first step towards protection.

“We have proof in Tunisia that if you change a law, society changes with it — even if it contradicts Islamic tradition,” he said. “When polygamy, which is permissible in Islam, was criminalized, people said it was haram [forbidden] to contradict the Prophet. When [former President Habib] Bourguiba made adoption legal, which is haram in Islam, of course people fought it. But the law affects how people think about social issues. Today, adoption is socially acceptable, and polygamy is barely talked about.”

Woman spray paints a column during the Chouftohounna Feminist Art Festival in Tunis, 15 May 2016.Woman spray paints a column during the Chouftohounna Feminist Art Festival in Tunis, 15
Raising Tunisian Consciousness

“Individual protection — keeping our community alive — is the most effective thing we can do today,” said Manai, whose organization Without Restrictions helps survivors access legal assistance, medical care, and housing following a violent attack or family dispute. “But in the long run we need education. That’s the only way the attacks will end. We have such a problem with — a fear of — sexuality in Tunisian society. If you use words like gender, binary, or queer, people stare blankly. Even in LGBT spaces, people confuse trans, cross-dressing, and queer identities. Outside of those spaces, sexuality as a concept, as an identity, is missing from most Tunisians’ consciousness.”
How can we expect people to understand homosexuality if they don’t understand heterosexuality as a sexuality? If the very word terrifies them?

Senda ben Jebara, an HRD working with the human rights group Mawjoudin (“We Exist”), believes sexual and gender education — “slowly, and using our own language” — is the only way to end homophobia. “How can we expect people to understand homosexuality if they don’t understand heterosexuality as a sexuality? If the very word terrifies them?”

Artists and HRDs at Fanni Raghman Anni (“Artist Without Choice”) are similarly working to raise consciousness. FRA is a human rights organisation born out of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that uses performance art to push discussions about individual, cultural, and sexual rights into public spaces.
Asma Kaouch and Seif Eddine Jlassi, two of the group’s leaders, told ThinkProgress that their performances are a strategy to defend human rights. They introduce gender, sexuality, and personal freedoms as concepts, without explicitly using words that will turn away some parts of Tunisian society.

“We stage events where normal people will see them — not tucked away in an elite theatre,” said Kaouch. “We want to draw people from the street and the grocery store. Our performances are about the relationship between an individual, a body, and society — concepts that most Tunisians don’t have the opportunity to think about critically. We don’t want to entertain, we want to shock.”
Fanni Rahman Anni is linking up youth in remote, conservative areas who want to perform. They have also built art centres in poor villages, said Kaouch, “where we know Islamic extremists are very active. We provide an alternative, and we introduce concepts that lay the groundwork for human rights.”

What’s Next?

Their strategies are as varied as their own identities, but Tunisian LGBT rights defenders are in near universal agreement about at least two things: that “solving” the country’s violent homophobia requires abolishing Article 230 and that providing public education in gender, sexuality, and human rights.

Many are also clear on the international community’s role in this struggle. They say Tunisia’s allies need to take a stronger line on the penal code article that criminalizes LGBT rights defenders and the communities they protect.

“Visiting diplomats and representatives need to be called on to bring up Article 230 at every opportunity. The decriminalization of homosexuality should be linked to trade and foreign investment,” said Belhedi. Others add that international employers must ensure Tunisian workers have the same rights as their international colleagues and can’t be prosecuted for their sexuality.
In the meantime, the work of deconstructing oppressive notions about gender and sexual rights — the work that will end and not just outlaw homophobic attacks – will be done by the Tunisian defenders themselves.

“Before the revolution, none of this was possible, there was no room for expression,” said Kaouch. “Now, Tunisian civil society is one of the most powerful in the world. The influence we have is real. And we have to take advantage of the space we fought to create.”
Erin Kilbride is the Media Coordinator at Front Line Defenders based in Dublin, Ireland.

March 31, 2016

Tunisia Jailing Gay Men and Looking up Their Asses



Tunisia has prosecuted seven men for consensual same-sex intercourse and forcing some to undergo anal examinations, a leading human rights organisation has claimed.

Homosexual relationships and acts are a criminal offence in the country, under article 230 of the penal code which criminalises “sodomy” with up to three years in prison. Over the course of the last six months, at least seven men have been convicted of consensual same-sex acts. Many of the men claim that they have also been beaten, humiliated and forced to undergo anal examinations by authorities.

Forced anal examinations are prohibited under the Convention against Torture, the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They are widely regarded within the medical industry as being flawed and not being a reliable means of ascertaining whether intercourse has occurred.

Human Rights Watch claims that the apartment of six students was raided by police in December after the men were accused of committing homosexual acts. A judicial police report allegedly recorded that authorities had received a tip off that “a number of homosexuals are using a house in Kairouan to do sodomy.”

The men were arrested and say they were beaten and subjected to homophobic remarks, before being taken to a public hospital where they were forced to undergo anal examinations by doctors. 
One student said: “I was the first to enter the room where the doctor was. I asked the doctor, ‘What is the test?’ He said, ‘A test like a woman’- meaning a virginity test. 

“I said: ‘No, I will not do that test.’ The policeman screamed at me, ‘Respect the doctor!’ I said, ‘I am respecting the doctor, but I refuse the test.

I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. 
Alleged victim of forced anal examination
“Then the policeman took me outside to a small garden. He hit me. He slapped me on the face and punched me on the shoulder and said ‘You will do the test’. The doctor was not watching, but he knew I was being beaten. The policeman pushed me back into the room and said to the doctor, ‘He will do the test’.”

He described his distress at the examination performed on him, alleging: “The doctor told me to go on an examination table and said, ‘Stay like you’re praying’ [in the typical Muslim prayer position]. I took my pants off and had to get on the table.

“He entered one finger inside my anus, with cream on it. He put his finger in and was looking. While putting his finger in, he said, ‘Are you ok now’, I said, ‘No I’m not okay’, it was painful.

“Then he put in a tube. It was to see if there was sperm. He pushed the tube far inside. It was about the length of a finger. It felt painful. I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. I feel that up to now. It’s very hard for me.”

Another student described how the abuses continued while in custody, alleging: “They started beating us, lined us up against the wall and shaved our heads… A policeman kicked us one by one, saying, ‘These are your asses that you gave up.’ One of us, when he was being shaved was bleeding from the nose due to stress. They just continued shaving him.

“The prison guards would call us out and take us to an open area and ask us to walk or dance like women, and if we didn’t do it, we would be slapped. I was forced to do it. They slapped me to make me do it. A prison guard took a baton and broke it on my hand because I wouldn’t dance. They would do that three or four times a week.

“When the guards were bored they would take us out with handcuffs and beat us. They even poked batons into our anuses, with our clothes on.”

The prison guards would call us out and take us to an open area and ask us to walk or dance like women, and if we didn’t do it, we would be slapped.
The results of these forced anal examinations were later presented in court as forensic evidence that “sodomy” had occurred. A numbr of the students were sentenced to three years in prison and then banished from the local city for a further three years. 

The sentences were later reduced to one or two months each. One student told the charity: “Physical pain goes away, but the psychological and emotional pain does not go away.”

Human Rights Watch has called on the Tunisian parliament to cease using anal examinations as forensic evidence and to urgently decriminalise homosexuality. Amnesty International has also criticized the penal code, previously saying of the students’ arrests: “Ultimately, only through repealing Article 230 of the Penal Code and decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations once and for all will the Tunisian authorities have any hope of providing adequate protection against violence and safeguarding against discrimination.”

December 16, 2015

Tunisia Sentences Three Young Men to 3 years on Gay Sex Charges


The movement for LGBT rights in Tunisia was dealt a heavy blow last week after six young men were imprisoned for three years on sodomy charges. The case has thrown human rights in the nation into the spotlight once again, especially as the men were made to undergo unscientific “medical” tests to find proof of their crime.

The men were detained after neighbors “denounced” them, according to their lawyer. The sentences handed down at a court in the city of Kairouan are the maximum allowed by law.

Private and consensual acts of sodomy are illegal under Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code. This sort of law is not unusual in the Islamic world, with homosexuality being illegal in most Muslim-majority countries and punishable by death in seven.

In September, a Tunisian court sentenced a man known only as Marwen to one year in prison for homosexuality after a “medical”exam. His case became a rallying point for gay rights protesters in the country, who launched a social media campaign behind the hashtag #FreeMarwen and raised important publicity. Tunisian actor and writer Mehdi Ben Attia also expressed his support for Marwen.


Bid to Legalize Homosexuality:

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.

February 11, 2015

In Tunisia Gay Tourist Sentenced to two years in Jail for “Homosexual acts”

A Swedish man has been jailed in Tunisia after being found guilty of engaging in “homosexual acts”.
According to AFP, the unnamed man, presumed to be a tourist, is in his fifties and received a two year prison sentence last week.
The country ignored protests by the Swedish government opposing his prosecution.
“(Sweden) highlighted its belief in equal rights regardless of sexual orientation as a fundamental principle of democracy,” Victoria Bell, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, told the news agency.
The man has appealed the sentence.
Article 230 of Tunisia’s Penal Code of 1913 allows for imprisonment of up to three years for sex between consenting adults of the same sex.
In 2013, a Belgian tourist was sentenced to three years in prison in Tunisia for apparently attempting to seduce another man in a police sting operation. He was released after three months.
In October last year, a retired British tourist, Ray Cole, and a local man were jailed on gay charges in Morocco. They were sentenced to four months in a Marrakesh prison. Following international outrage, Cole was released and sent back to the UK. It is believed that the Moroccan man was also freed.

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