Association Shams, a notable LGBTI rights group in Tunisia, is facing closure after a legal challenge by the government.
Shams have condemned the move, describing it as discriminatory and ‘judicial harassment’ by the government.
The group has been operating in Tunisia since 2013 and is one of the most prolific LGBTI rights organizations in the Arabic world.
Shams say this is the seventh time the government has been tried to shut them down. Though the authorities failed to do so in a 2016 lawsuit, they are currently appealing the decision.
A hearing is set for Friday (3 May), which could determine the future of the group.
The group says that in this occasion is more serious as the authorities are invoking Shira law in their appeal.
Tunisia maintains laws prohibiting male homosexual sex. Despite this, the country also has a thriving LGBTI community.
‘The judicial harassment against our association has no legal basis’
The government claims that Shams’ operations violates the Law on Associations.
They argue that the Shams’ objective to protect sexual minorities goes against ‘Tunisian society’s Islamic values, which reject homosexuality and prohibit such alien behavior’.
The authorities also say that since there is a law banning homosexuality, allowing LGBTI rights group such as Shams to operate freely goes against the law.
Mounir Baatour, the president of Association Shams, hit out at the government’s latest legal challenge.
‘The judicial harassment against our association has no legal basis and reflects the homophobia of the Tunisian state and its will to discriminate and stigmatize the LGBT community, which is already marginalized,’ Baatour told the Guardian.
‘Such harassment makes our work difficult and creates a climate of tension and fear among the team working for our association.’
Reversing Tunisia’s anti-sodomy law
Shams is working to reverse Article 230 of Tunisia’s Penal Code of 1913. People convicted of sodomy face up to three years of imprisonment under the law.
The group registered with the government in 2015, as an organization supporting sexual and gender minorities.
Though the government filed a complaint about the group in 2016. A court ordered Shams to suspend activity for 30 days.
However, the court later lifted the suspension and ruled that Shams was not violating the law.
Human Rights Watch have condemned the government for their legal moves in the past.
Thriving LGBTI scene
Though the authorities’ attempts to clamp down on LGBTI activists, Tunisia’s LGBTI scene is thriving.
The country’s four officially recognized LGBTI organizations all emerged following the 2011 revolution.
In January last year, the country’s first LGBTI film festival was hosted in capital city, Tunis. The festival was organized LGBTI rights organization Mawjoudin (We Exist).
However, Shams reports that the number of people arrested under Article 230 increased significantly in 2018.
The groups said that 127 arrests were made last year, compared with 79 in 2017. There have been at least 22 arrests this year.
Men have also reportedly experienced degrading treatment while in custody.
A notable case is of a 22-year-old man known only as Anas, who was arrested after reporting being gang-raped and robbed to police.
Anas was then sent to hospital and given anal examinations to determine if he was gay, according to his lawyer.
Human Rights Watch hit out at his treatment, and called for the repeal of anti-sodomy law and forced anal examinations.