Africa / Middle East / North Africa

Human rights advocates decry 3-year sentences in Tunisia

Seven human rights organizations yesterday protested a Tunisian court’s imposition of three-year prison sentences Dec. 10 on six young men convicted of sodomy. In a press release announcing the protest, Human Rights Watch provided details and updates on the case, which was reported here on Dec. 13:

Tunisia: Three Years Sentence for Homosexuality
6 Students Subjected to Anal Examinations

Location of Tunisia (Map courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

Location of Tunisia (Map courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

(Tunis, December 15, 2015) – A Tunisian court sentenced six male students accused of sodomy to three years in prison on December 10, 2015, seven nongovernmental organizations said today. The convictions violated international law and were contrary to the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination under Tunisia’s 2014 constitution.

Tunisian authorities subjected the defendants to anal examinations, ostensibly to use as evidence in the case. The court also banned the students from the town of Kairouan, for three years, after their release from prison.

“While Tunisians were celebrating the Nobel Prize for the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet on Human Rights Day, a Tunisian court was handing down a medieval sentence to six students on the basis of a gross invasion of their private life and bodily integrity,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch.

Tunisia’s Justice Ministry should immediately issue a directive ordering prosecutors to stop sending detainees for anal examinations as part of police investigative procedures to determine suspects’ sexual behavior. Tunisia’s health minister should also direct all forensic doctors under the ministry’s authority to cease all anal examinations for these purposes and to respect people’s right to physical dignity and integrity. Tunisia’s parliament should repeal penal code article 230, which criminalizes sodomy and punishes it with three years in prison.

In Tunisia, Kairouan is located about 150 kilometers (100 miles) south of Tunis. (Map courtesy of brittanica.com)

In Tunisia, Kairouan is located about 150 kilometers (100 miles) south of Tunis. (Map courtesy of brittanica.com)

Police in Kairouan, 150 kilometers south of Tunis, arrested the six students, whose names the signatory organizations are withholding for their security, on December 5. The lawyer of one of the students, Bouthaina Kerkeni, told the signatory organizations that the police arrested the six men at the apartment of one of them, at 7 p.m., acting on a complaint by neighbors. They searched the house, seized computers, and took the men to a police station.

The following day, the prosecutor at the First Instance Court of Kairouan charged them with sodomy, under article 230 of the penal code, ordered them detained, and ordered anal exams. The forensic doctor at the Kairouan public hospital performed the exams. The prosecutors introduced into evidence a medical report prepared by the doctor, who claimed to have identified unspecified “signs” of recent anal intercourse.

On December 10, the judge of the First Instance Court in Kairouan sentenced all six to the maximum penalty under article 230, three years in prison, said Kerkeni, who was present during the hearing and judgment. Article 230 provides that sodomy, if practiced in a non-public location, shall be punished by imprisonment for three years.

The judge also banned the defendants from Kairouan for three years, under penal code article 5. One defendant was sentenced to an additional six months under article 226 for “indecent behavior in public,” on the grounds that police found pornographic videos on his computer.

Only two defendants were represented in court by a lawyer. All six are in the Kairouan prison. They have until December 20 to file an appeal.

Logo of Human Rights Watch

Logo of Human Rights Watch

Prosecutions for consensual sex in private between adults violate the rights to privacy and non-discrimination guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a party. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the covenant, has made clear on several occasions that sexual orientation is a status protected against discrimination under these provisions. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that arrests for same-sex conduct between consenting adults are, by definition, arbitrary.

These rights are reflected in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution. Article 24 obligates the government to protect the rights to privacy and the inviolability of the home. Article 21 provides that “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”

On September 22, a court in the city of Sousse sentenced a 22-year-old man, known as Marwen – also a student – to one year in prison on sodomy charges, after he underwent a court-ordered anal exam. He was later released on bail. The Sousse Appeals Court is scheduled to rule on his appeal on December 17.

On September 28, following Marwen’s conviction, the Tunisian Medical Syndicate, the leading doctors’ association in the country, issued a statement condemning the use of anal exams in the enforcement of article 230. The then-minister of justice, Mohamed Salah ben Aissa, declared that article 230 is contrary to the constitution, should not be applied, and should be repealed. However, Ben Aissa, issued no official directive to prosecutors to stop using it.

[Editor’s note: Less than a month after Ben Aissa made that statement on Sept. 28, he was forced out of office. The government’s spokesperson explained Ben Aissa’s Oct. 20 dismissal by saying that he had made several public statements that “lacked seriousness.”]

On October 5, President Beji Caid Essebsi said on the Egyptian TV station CBC that he would oppose any attempt to repeal the article.

“Instead of defending repressive laws like the one criminalizing homosexuality the president of the Republic should lead efforts to reform the laws that conflict with the rights enshrined in the 2014 constitution,” Guellali said.

Many human rights organizations have documented cases in several countries, in which police or prosecutors subject men to forensic anal examinations as part of their effort to “prove” that they have engaged in anal penetration. Such invasive examinations violate the individual’s rights to dignity, privacy, and physical integrity.

They constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and may amount to torture, violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which Tunisia has ratified. In addition, they have no evidentiary value and their findings should not be regarded as probative in a court of law.

In 2011, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated:

Logo of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights

Logo of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights

One issue highlighted by United Nations experts is the “medically worthless” practice of subjecting men suspected of homosexual conduct to non-consensual anal examinations to “prove” their homosexuality. Such examinations have been condemned by the Committee against Torture, the Special Rapporteur on torture and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has held that the practice contravenes the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.

Court-ordered anal examinations for the purpose of determining sexual activity are also contrary to medical ethics, according to the World Medical Association and the UN Principles of Medical Ethics Relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, Particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

List of signatory organizations

  • Avocats Sans Frontières – Belgique
  • Euro Med Rights
  • Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (International Federation of Human Rights)
  • Human Rights Watch
  • L’Organisation contre la torture en Tunisie
  • L’Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture (World Organization Against Torture)
  • Le Comité Pour le Respect des Libertés et des Droits de l’Homme en Tunisie

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Tunisia, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/middle-east/n-africa/tunisia

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