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Last week, an appeals court in Tunis released Rania Amdouni, a prominent queer feminist activist and artist, who had been sentenced to six months in prison on charges of “insulting” the police.
Amdouni was arrested on February 27 when she went to a police station to file a complaint against an officer who had allegedly harassed her earlier that day based on her gender expression.
Mohammed Amin Hdeiji, a lawyer who accompanied Amdouni to the police station, told Human Rights Watch that police officers in the station responded by ridiculing Amdouni’s appearance and harassing her again based on her presumed sexual orientation.
“Eight police officers surrounded her and repeatedly insulted her, and one told her, ‘You are a homosexual, you will not win against us, and we will not allow you to defame police officers,’” Hdeiji said.
On March 4, a court sentenced Amdouni to six months in prison on the charge of “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duty,” which is punishable by up to one year in prison under article 125 of Tunisia’s penal code. She was also charged of “causing embarrassment and disruption” and “apparent drunkenness.”
The case file said that Amdouni was in a “disorderly state” and had “offended police honor” by yelling and cursing at officers outside the station. Hamadi Hanchiri, the attorney who defended Amdouni in court, said that police presented “no evidence” of the artist targeting an officer at the station or on the street, nor any indication that she had been under the influence of alcohol.
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human’s Rights Watch have called for Amdouni’s immediate release.
“Amdouni’s arrest and prosecution sends a chilling message to activists who face harassment that if they dare to come forward to report police abuse they risk being turned from victim to accused,” said Amna Guellali, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“It is outrageous that Rania Amdouni has been sentenced to six months in prison simply for making comments deemed offensive about the police,” Guellali added.
Amdouni was detained at a women’s prison in the city of Manouba, north-west of Tunis. According to Hanchiri, prison guards have repeatedly entered her cell at night while she was sleeping to abuse and insult her based on her sexual orientation and gender expression and threaten her for complaining about the police. Hanchiri submitted an appeal on March 5.
Amdouni is one of many Tunisian LGBTQ activists who report being routinely targeted and attacked by the country’s security forces. In January, Amdouni told Human Rights Watch that police officers were searching for her near her building, which forced her to seek hiding in a different neighborhood. “I don’t feel safe, even in my apartment,” she said. “My life is threatened, and my mental health is deteriorating. People are staring at me in the street and harassing me online.”
In Tunisia, a country that launched the Arab Spring in 2010, homosexuality is criminalized. According to the local branch of Human Rights Watch, the crackdown on LGBTQ activists has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization has documented cases of police abuse which include targeting LGBTQ activists with arbitrary arrests, physical assault, threats of rape and murder, and denied access to legal counsel.
“LGBTI activists who persist in protesting are terrified that security forces will single them out at protests, round them up, and abuse them with impunity,” said Rasha Younes, an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces have an obligation to protect the right of peaceful protest, not harass activists whose bold engagement has contributed to Tunisia’s reputation as a regional leader in its progress on human rights.”