Africa / Middle East / North Africa

Advocates urge pressure on Tunisia to spare LGBT group

International human rights advocates at Front Line Defenders issued a statement today condemning Tunisia for ordering the LGBT group Shams to suspend activities. In the process, the statement clarified the context and background of this violation of Tunisian citizens’ rights to association and free speech. This is the text of the statement:

Tunisia: Suspension of the activities of the LGBT rights association Shams

Shams logo

Shams logo

On 4 January 2016, the Tunisian Court of First Instance ordered the suspension of the activities of the LGBT rights association Shams for 30 days following the filing of a complaint by the Tunisian government accusing the organisation of violating the NGO Law.

Shams is a non-governmental organisation which works for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and seeks the decriminalization of homosexual activities in Tunisia. On 18 May 2015, it became the first group of its kind to receive official authorisation from Tunisia’s interior ministry, having attempted to obtain official registration since December 2014.

The complaint against the LGBT rights association has been filed under Article 45 of NGO Law no.88/2011, which allows the executive to request the judiciary to suspend the activities of a registered NGO when it breaches the provisions of the law. Tunisian authorities claim that Shams’ support of homosexuals rights was not included in its founding statutes, and violates Article 3 of NGOs Law no.88/2011. Article 3 states that “NGOs should respect in its statutes, activities and funding principles of rule of law, democracy, pluralism, transparency, equality and human rights as they are defined in international treaties ratified by Tunisia.”

Hedi Sahly, vice president of "Shams" (Photo coutesy of EtatsGenerauxLGBTI.fr)

Hedi Sahly, vice president of “Shams” (Photo coutesy of EtatsGenerauxLGBTI.fr)

Under the NGO Law, this measure can be followed by further measures, including the dissolution of the association if it fails to fully comply with its provisions. An appeal launched by Shams against the suspension of their activities shall be heard by the Court on 18 January 2016.

The registration of Shams in May 2015 was a significant victory for LGBT defenders in Tunisia and the Arab region. However, the organisation and its members have since been subjected to systematic smear campaigns by religious actors and conservative political groups in the country. Leading members of the organisation have received death threats following public appearances in the media, and threats made against Mr Hedi Sahly, the vice-president of the association, forced him to seek refuge outside of the State, out of fear for his personal safety.

The campaign against Shams escalated after the organisation held its first conference in Tunis on 3 October 2015, demanding Tunisian authorities to release all persons jailed for their homosexual orientation, and to abolish Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

Previous requests by the Tunisian authorities for the judiciary to suspend the activities of the organisation, made in August and October 2015, were rejected.

Front Line Defenders expresses serious concern for the suspension of the activities of Shams, which it believes to be solely related to their work in the defence of human rights, particularly their legitimate work for LGBT rights. It urges Tunisian authorities to revoke the decision to suspend the activities of the association, and to ensure that its members are able to conduct their activities freely, without fear of intimidation or reprisals of any sort.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Tunisia to:

  1. Immediately and unconditionally revoke the complaint made against the LGBT rights association Shams, as Front Line Defenders believes the judicial action against them has been taken solely as a result of the legitimate and peaceful work of the association and its members in the defence of human rights;
  2. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (Photo courtsy of Nairaland.com)

    Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (Photo courtsy of Nairaland.com)

    Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Tunisia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions.

Letter-writing campaign

Front Line Defenders asked its supporters to contact the president of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, in support of Shams.  The campaign includes a sample letter that supporters can use, along with:

  • An email address: boc@pm.gov.tn
  • A telephone number: (216-71) 565 400
  • A mailing address: President Beji Caid Essebsi, Place du Gouvernement – La Kasbah, 1030 Tunis.

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