The 8 youths recently charged with homosexual acts and prostitution in Omrane Superieur have been fully acquitted of the charges. This marks the first time that individuals charged with violating Article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code, which criminalizes sodomy, have been outright acquitted in the Tunisian court system. However, the group of youths remains in prison for charges of drug possession, according to the Mounir Baatour, the lawyer representing the Shams LGBT rights group. Law 52 of the same penal code criminalizes consumption and possession of cannabis use and a positive drug test garners an automatic sentence of one year in prison and a 1000 TD ($500) fine.
The defendants were comprised of six Tunisian and three Libyan men. Of the six Tunisian men, three of them had been previously charged and imprisoned in December because of homosexual acts as part of the Kairouan 6 group. They were later released in the beginning of March, but found themselves rearrested with the other men on March 26. Two Tunisian women were also arrested in the case, but no charges were brought against them.
The court made its decision regarding the sodomy charges on March 30, but the acquittal verdict only became public today, after the Shams organization published a press release praising the court’s decision. Mounir Baatour tells me that the prosecutors tried to expedite the hearing in order to not create another media scandal. Every recent case involving the arrest of men based on sodomy charges has created waves on Tunisian social media and news sites. “They hoped to get a guilty verdict right away,” Baatour tells me, “But the defendants refused the anal test. Without testimony or any evidence, the judge chose to acquit them of all charges.”
Hedi Sahly at a Shams presentation in October
The fact they were acquitted marks a large achievement for the Tunisian LGBT activist community. Hedi Sahly, VP of the Shams organization, tells me, “I’m very happy about the judge’s decision. This is the first time it has ever happened like this.” He continues, “We still hope that the police and justice systems will one day stop going after people based on their sexual orientation.” Sahly is currently awaiting his asylum decision in Belgium, as he was forced to flee Tunisia after the Ministry of Interior told him that people were plotting to hurt him.
At the same time, the fact that the men were asked to undergo the anal test is concerning for Mounir Baatour. “Obviously, it’s illegal,” he tells me, since the action does violate the Convention against Torture.
In Tunisia, the LGBT community finds itself susceptible to criticism from all sides. According to a recent survey by Elka Consulting, 64.5% of Tunisians believe homosexuals deserve punishment.
Despite the majority of society being opposed to homosexuals being free, the LGBT community is hailing the court’s decision as a great step forward. Abderrazzek Selmi, a prominent member in the Damj LGBT rights organization says, “I’m pleased with the court’s decision. I hope it will remain this way forever, but we first need to abolish Article 230. Only then can we move forward.”
Ahmed Ben Amor, another VP of Shams, furthers sentiments of his fellow activists, “Judges are being very objective and are not homophobic. Legal power for homosexuals is being strengthened.”