Update from March 5, 2016: The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of the six youngsters, but reduced the sentence from three years to one month (the time spent in custody), together with 400 dinars fine. It canceled the 5-year banishment from Kairouan and the conviction of one of them to six months in jail for indecent assault. The legal battle is not over. Next step: the Court of Cassation.
I am old enough to have an idea of the repression against dissidents during the dictatorship of Ben Ali and after that. Until now I thought I was well informed. But what I am in the process of discovering is beyond anything I could imagine. The reality in which young gay men try to survive is simply appalling.
While young dissidents subject to repression could and can count on the support of civil society, their families, and their friends, the young miboon or karyooka (two of the many derogatory terms used to designate "homos" in Tunisian Arabic) are left almost entirely on their own as they try to defend themselves*.
First they risk heavy prison sentences, for what the criminal code calls "sodomy". The sinister Article 230, one of the shortest and stockiest of the Penal Code, states: "sodomy (between consenting adults) is punishable by 3 years in prison."
Since it is difficult to catch offenders in the act, what they are accused of must be proven in other ways. The solution is called the "anal test", in other words a universally condemned, disgusting and absurd form of torture, which in fact does not provide any more evidence than that of the famous virginity tests for women, public health doctors being complicit in this grave violation of human rights. Young men subjected to this treatment begin a long calvary which can be compared only to medieval ordeals in Europe.
After the first police brutalities of the questioning and arrest, the hell continues in prison, where they are subjected to all possible abuse by guards and inmates. But this is only a beginning: once they recover their "freedom" they are either rejected by their families - and then fall in the hands of pimps who exploit them- or confined and severely mistreated. It is not uncommon for families to resort to quacks who practice exorcisms using the Quran as magic tool to expel "the devil" from their bodies.
It is therefore not surprising that on average a young gay man commits suicide every week in Tunisia, if we believe the recently created association Shams (Sun), one of the few who try to defend their rights and for this suffered an attempted ban after an event they wanted to hold on December 10th, the anniversary of the universal Declaration of human rights, had not received authorization from the Interior Ministry.
That same December 10th the court of Kairouan sentenced six young people aged 19 to 22 years to 3 years in prison, followed by 5 years of banishment from the city of Kairouan, according to article 22 of the penal code. Dating from 1913, during the French colonial era, this article, rarely applied, was used in the 60s and 70s against women convicted of prostitution. Fadoua Braham, counsel for the young men, appealed the conviction and obtained from the Court of Appeal, on 7 January 2016, the release against bail of 500 dinars [= 250 euro].The Appeal Court dealed with merits of the case on February 25th and will deliver its verdict on March 3rd.
"Article 230: until when?": Fifty Tunisian figures launched on December 10th, 2015 a campaign for the repeal of this article
The Kairouan case
The six young people were arrested during a crackdown following a tip-off, and were initially suspected of terrorist activities. One of them had left his parents home leaving a letter. Everyone thought he had gone to fight in Syria. The discovery of videos on a laptop confiscated during the raid then directed police to a different "track", that of a "male prostitution ring", supposedly led by a sophomore, the others being first year students. Without flagrante delicto, the police then take proceedings to a department head doctor to do anal tests. The boys repeatedly sign papers in which they explicitly refuse to be subjected to these tests. The police beat them up. The accomplice doctor attends all this and, finally, asks them to bow "as if they were going to pray" to probe their private areas in front of the police. Some of them are locked in a police group cell for women. Then, preceded by the rumour of their arrest, the youth are put in prison, in a cell housing more than 150 inmates, where they are stripped of all that their family had given them, and forced to sleep on the bare ground. Each day, the guards come for them at noon, handcuff them and "play" with them for two hours, with every imaginable humiliation.
D. is one of them. At 22, he is a second-year Arabic student. He is a poet. He discovered his sexual identity aged 13. "I've always been attracted to male beauty, my first love was a boy, which convinced me of my homosexuality." He is a very sensitive boy. Living in a suburb of Tunis, he was blackmailed by his high school classmates, who threatened to reveal his "secret." He made a suicide attempt at age 17, after which his parents made him change schools. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Kairouan, a city which he says he fell in love with and where he is fully integrated. Once released, he immediately resumed his studies and returned to the University to pass the partial exams. There he was greeted by a raging horde of students wanting to lynch him, but thanks to friends who protected him they did not succeed. Even if the Court of Appeal will acquitt him on the March 3rd - his lawyer is optimistic, believing that the procedural flaws she raised will be taken into account - the hostility towards him is not likely to disappear. But D. told me, "I hope tomorrow will be better."
* Among the political parties, only one, Al Massar (center-left) has publicly taken a stand for the repeal of article 230. The jurist Mohamed Ben Saleh Aïssa was dismissed from his functions as Minister of Justice in October last year for taking a stand in favour of the repeal. Human rights organizations have so far been very timid, with the exception of Human Rights Watch.
Son: "So Daddy, I heard that gay people are now allowed to get married in the US. What does 'gay' mean, though?"
Cartoon by Andeel, Egypt