Tunisia

Executive Summary

According to the 2014 constitution, Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a multiparty, unicameral parliamentary system and a president with powers specified in the constitution. In 2019 the country held free and fair parliamentary elections that gave the Nahda Party a plurality of the votes and the opportunity to form a new government in the first transition of power since its first democratic elections in 2014. President Kais Saied, an independent candidate, came to office in 2019 after winning the country’s second democratic presidential elections.

The Ministry of Interior holds legal authority and responsibility for law enforcement. The ministry oversees the National Police, which has primary responsibility for law enforcement in the major cities, and the National Guard (gendarmerie), which oversees border security and patrols smaller towns and rural areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Military courts, with judges nominated by the president and approved by the Military Judicial Council, have authority to try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes or crimes involving members of the security or armed forces. Security forces committed periodic abuses.

On July 25, citing widespread protests and political paralysis, President Saied took “exceptional measures” under Article 80 of the constitution to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, freeze parliament’s activities for 30 days, and lift the immunity of members of parliament. On August 23, Saied announced an indefinite extension of the “exceptional measures” period and on September 22, he issued a decree granting the president certain executive, legislative, and judiciary powers and authority to rule by decree, but allowed continued implementation of the preamble and chapters one and two, which guarantee rights and freedoms. Civil society organizations and multiple political parties raised concern that through these decrees President Saied granted himself unprecedented decision-making powers, without checks and balances and for an unlimited period. On September 29, Saied named Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister, and on October 11, she formed a government. On December 13, Saied announced a timeline for constitutional reforms including public consultations and the establishment of a committee to revise the constitution and electoral laws, leading to a national referendum in July 2022. Parliamentary elections would follow in December 2022.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests or detentions; the use of military courts to investigate civilian cases; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including the closure of media outlets, as well as prosecution of social media users based on criminal libel laws; serious government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government took steps to investigate officials who allegedly committed abuses, but investigations into police, security force, and detention center abuses lacked transparency and frequently encountered long delays and procedural obstacles. High-profile investigations into several members of parliament and businesspeople on corruption charges also lacked transparency.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

Two individuals reportedly died in security force custody during the year. On March 23, parliament formed a committee to investigate the death of Abdesaalam Zayen, who died on March 2 while in detention in Sfax. Zayen was reportedly arrested along with his brother for violating the COVID-19 curfew and was accused of insulting a police officer. Zayen was reportedly diabetic and required insulin, but authorities allegedly refused him access to medication even after his health began deteriorating. A forensic report from September 25 stated Zayen was deprived of insulin. On July 12, parliament’s investigative committee held a press conference to announce the investigation remained ongoing, but there were no updates by year’s end.

The independent Tunisian Organization Against Torture (OCTT) reported that Moez Amri died on July 2 in a hospital in Tunis under suspicious circumstances. Amri was arrested on June 29 and detained in Mornaguia Prison following a physical altercation with a National Police officer in downtown Tunis. On July 1, the General Committee for Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR) contacted Amri’s wife to request her authorization to provide medical treatment. The following day prison personnel informed her that Amri had been transferred to the hospital in critical condition. Later that day prison officials notified the family of Amri’s death. The family reported that Amri had been in good health prior to his arrest. The OCTT received photographs and video of the corpse showing traces of bruises, including on the wrists and elsewhere. The OCTT informed the National Antitorture Authority (INPT) regarding the case and called for a forensic report to determine the cause of death. The government made no public statements concerning this case.

In March the Indictment Chamber referred the case of Omar Laabidi, who drowned in 2018 allegedly due to police negligence, to the Ben Arous First Instance Court. A group of police officials faced manslaughter and negligence charges but remained free pending trial. On December 5, the court announced it would schedule the hearing for March 2022.

As of September an investigation continued into the 2019 death in National Police custody of Ayoub Ben Fradj, allegedly due to excessive use of pepper spray, after he was detained for involvement in a fight. One member of the security forces remained in pretrial detention facing charges; two other suspects remained free.

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

Although the law prohibits such practices, the National Police reportedly subjected detainees to harsh physical treatment, according to firsthand accounts provided to national and international organizations. Several prominent local human rights activists decried the practice of torture in police stations and detention centers.

The press reported that on January 27, an individual named Gam was arrested on allegations of looting and held at the detention center in Monastir. Police allegedly tied his feet to the legs of a table and beat his groin with sticks for several hours. One officer reportedly burned Gam’s testicles with a lighter. According to the press report, police tortured Gam for more than seven hours and denied him medical treatment for two days before transferring him to a hospital in Sousse, where one of his testicles was removed due to severe injury. According to the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the First Instance Court’s public prosecutor in Monastir opened an investigation into the allegations on February 2 based on the crime of torture resulting in organ amputation. According to press reports, the court summoned three suspects for questioning on February 15. There were no updates by year’s end.

On May 4, a video appeared on social media allegedly showing security agents assaulting a young man in Tunis with a baton, following a soccer match. There were no public updates on this case.

A video appearing to show police stripping naked a young man in Sidi Hassine and beating him during a June 8 protest drew significant attention and condemnation online. On June 10, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement alleging the individual was intoxicated and voluntarily removed his clothes to provoke police. The following day, however, the ministry condemned the police’s actions, suspended those responsible for the apparent abuses, and announced an investigation. On June 29, the Tunis First Instance Court issued an arrest warrant against one police officer. On December 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis dismissed the case against police officers suspected of involvement in the assault.

On October 19, arrest warrants against two police officers were issued for attempted premeditated murder. The two officers violently assaulted a young man inside a police car as they were taking him to the police station after arresting him for filming a car accident he witnessed in which the officers were involved; the young man’s injuries required his hospitalization. Forensic investigations led to the arrest of the two officers and ongoing investigations into two additional policemen.

The INPT, an independent body, was established in 2013 to respond to allegations of torture and mistreatment. The INPT issued a report in 2020 covering 2016-20 but had not issued a 2021 report as of year’s end.

The Ministry of Interior has three inspector general offices (one for the National Police, one for the National Guard, and a central inspectorate general reporting directly to the minister) that conduct administrative investigations into the different ministry structures; these offices play a role in both onsite inspections and investigations in response to complaints received from the public. The inspector general offices can hold agents accountable and issue administrative reprimands even before the courts announce a final verdict.

Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the government for what they saw as reluctance to investigate torture allegations and the appearance of impunity for abusers. On June 23, INPT president Fathi Jarray contended that the judiciary had never announced a final verdict in cases of torture or mistreatment and that such cases were generally treated instead as “excessive use of force.”

The United Nations announced in late 2020 that an investigation into an August 2020 report of sexual exploitation and abuse by Tunisian peacekeepers deployed to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, allegedly involving transactional sex with an adult, found the allegation to be unsubstantiated.

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, although security forces did not always observe these provisions. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Human rights organizations expressed concern that the government used its powers under the 1973 decree law on the state of emergency to place citizens under house arrest with limited evidence or foundation for suspicion, and often without offering these individuals access to the court orders that led to their arrest. (The country has been under a state of emergency since 2015.)

On March 20, political activist and former member of parliament Ayman Aloui was arrested, along with other members of the al-Watad Party, and accused of insulting a public servant (on-duty security officers). The detainees refused to give statements without the presence of their lawyers. The OCTT reported that their lawyers were prevented from entering the Bardo police station or attending their clients’ interrogation. The case was referred to the public prosecutor, who dropped the charges and released the detainees.

On December 31, the Ministry of Interior detained Nahda party vice president Noureddine Bhiri and former Ministry of Interior official Fathi Baldi without announcing formal charges against them.

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. The country’s counterterrorism law establishes the legal framework for law enforcement to use internationally recognized special investigative techniques, including surveillance and undercover investigations. The law allows interception of communications, including recording of telephone conversations, with advance judicial approval for a period not to exceed four months. Government agents are subject to a one-year prison sentence if they conduct surveillance without judicial authorization.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law broadly defines violence against women as “any restriction denying women equality in the civil, political, economic, social, or cultural domains.” The law criminalizes rape (including of men), incest, sexual harassment of women in public places, and gender discrimination. A rapist cannot avoid prosecution by marrying the survivor.

Rape remained a taboo subject, and cultural pressures often dissuaded survivors from reporting sexual assault. There were no government public education programs on domestic violence, including rape. Survivors received services at two dozen social centers throughout the country, in addition to five centers – one managed by the government and four by civil society organizations – dedicated to survivors of gender-based violence.

The Ministry of Justice tracked gender-based violence cases, gathering information on cases in each court but not making such information public. The government did not, however, systematically track the number of rape cases. Civil society representatives reported anecdotally that few rape cases resulted in a conviction.

Laws prohibiting domestic violence provide penalties for assault committed by a spouse or family member that are double those of an unrelated individual for the same crime, but enforcement was rare, and domestic violence remained a serious problem. The law allows women to seek restraining orders against their abusers without filing a criminal case or filing for divorce. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Senior Citizens monitored complaints of domestic violence and worked with civil society to increase awareness of the law and help them connect women with available support services. The ministry operated a national hotline for survivors of family violence.

On February 8, Minister of Women, Family and Senior Citizens Imen Zahouani Houimel announced the creation of a national committee to monitor implementation of the anti-gender-based violence law. The committee included representatives from government institutions, national organizations, and civil society. Houimel stated that despite passage of the law, the rate of violence against women remained high. The emergence of political and economic violence, “now practiced not only in traditional closed spaces but also in public spaces,” necessitated the committee’s creation, according to Houimel.

Human rights organizations, including local NGO Aswaat Nissaa and Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers without Borders), issued a May 10 joint press release condemning impunity and calling for implementation of the law against gender-based violence following the May 9 death of an El Kef woman, allegedly killed by her husband, a National Guard officer. According to the Women and Citizenship Association in El Kef, the victim had filed a domestic violence complaint against her husband a few days before her death. Women’s rights groups accused the El Kef deputy prosecutor on duty during the incident of not arresting the defendant because he was a security officer. A campaign in solidarity with the victim spread online. As of July 15, Aswaat Nissaa reported the defendant was in detention pending trial; there were no further developments as of December.

Sexual Harassment: The gender-based violence law allows up to a two-year sentence for the harasser and a 5,000-dinar ($1,840) fine. Sexual harassment can include any act, gesture, or words with sexual connotation, including harassment in the street. The punishment is doubled if the victim is a child or the perpetrator has authority over the victim.

On August 2, independent member of parliament Faycal Tebbini was arrested on charges of online harassment of two female members of parliament in October 2020. On September 22, Tebbini received an eight-month suspended prison sentence for defamation and was released the same day.

On August 16, independent member of parliament Zouheir Makhlouf was placed under house arrest in response to sexual harassment allegations made in 2019 that he allegedly followed and exposed himself to a female student. On November 12, the court sentenced him to one year in prison on sexual harassment and public indecency charges.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence through the Ministry of Justice, although services were often delayed. Emergency contraception was available without a prescription.

Discrimination: The constitution and law explicitly prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally enforced these prohibitions. Women faced societal rather than statutory barriers to their economic and political participation. Codified civil law is based on the Napoleonic code, although on occasion judges drew upon interpretations of sharia as a basis for family and inheritance disputes.

Newly married couples must state explicitly in the marriage contract whether they elect to combine their possessions or to keep them separate. Sharia inheritance law in some instances provides men with a larger share of an inheritance. Some families avoided the application of sharia by executing sales contracts between parents and children to ensure that daughters received shares of property equal to that given to sons. Non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands may not inherit from each other unless they seek a legal judgment based on the rights enshrined in the constitution. The government considers all children of those marriages to be Muslim and forbids those children from inheriting from their mothers. Spouses may, however, freely give up to one-third of their estate to whomever they designate in their will.

The law prohibits all forms of racial discrimination, including “all distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, color, origin, heritage, or all other forms of racial obstruction, obstacle, or deprivation of rights and liberties or their exercise.” The law penalizes acts of racial discrimination with up to three years in prison and a substantial fine for an individual and a larger fine for a legal entity. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and there were no reports of prosecution based on antidiscrimination laws.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth from the parents, and the law provides for 10 days to register a newborn. Thereafter, parents have 30 days to explain their failure to register a newborn and complete the registration. Female citizens transmit citizenship on an equal basis with male citizens, and there was no discrimination between a mother and father regarding passport application and authorization to leave the country.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse. Between January and November, the Ministry of Women’s psychosocial hotline for children and their families received 5,176 reports of child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage for both sexes is 18, but the courts may, in certain situations, authorize the marriage of persons younger than 18 upon the request and approval of both parents.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual relations with a child younger than age 16 are considered rape in all cases, and the perpetrator is subject to 20 years in prison with the possibility of a life sentence if there were aggravating circumstances, such as incest or the use of violence (see section 6, Women). The court has discretion, but is not required, to drop the charges of sex with a minor if the perpetrator agrees to marry the victim, with the approval of her parents.

On November 8, the Court of Appeal of Sidi Bouzid sentenced the director of an unlicensed, privately run Quranic school in Regueb, Sidi Bouzid Governorate, to five years in prison, three years of probation, and a 50,000-dinar ($18,500) fine on charges of rape, sexual exploitation of minors, and forced labor of children, in a case dating to January 2019.

The law prohibits child pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The country’s Jewish population numbered an estimated 1,400 persons. An April 7 statement by the religious freedom NGO Attalaki Association highlighted two instances of harassment, including one by a government official: a customs officer who reportedly targeted a Jewish merchant, beating him and removing his pants. Another Jewish man was harassed by a man who yelled at him to leave the country.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Since 1991 the law requires all new public buildings to be accessible to persons with physical disabilities, and the government generally enforced the law. Persons with physical disabilities did not have access to most buildings built before 1991. The government did not ensure information and communications were accessible for persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Social Affairs is charged with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The government issued cards to persons with disabilities for benefits such as unrestricted parking, free and priority medical services, free and preferential seating on public transportation, and consumer discounts. In general, public buses and trains were ill-suited and not easily accessible to persons with disabilities. The government provided tax incentives to companies to encourage the hiring of persons with physical disabilities. The government administered approximately 310 schools for children with disabilities, at least five schools for blind pupils, one higher-education school, and one vocational training institution. These special education centers served individuals ages six to 30. The Ministry of Social Affairs managed centers that provided short- and long-term accommodation and medical services to persons with disabilities who lacked other means of support.

The Ministry of Social Affairs provided 180 dinars ($66) per month to families that included persons with disabilities and an additional 20 dinars ($7) per school-aged child with disabilities.

One of the greatest problems for persons with disabilities, according to the Ibsar Association, an NGO promoting rights for persons with disabilities, was a lack of access to information through education, media, or government agencies. For children with physical disabilities, inaccessible infrastructure remained a major hurdle to their social inclusion, as few buildings or cities were easily accessible to persons with physical disabilities or reduced mobility.

There were very limited education options or public-sector accommodations for persons with hearing or vision disabilities. There were no schools for children with hearing disabilities, and Ibsar estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with hearing disabilities were illiterate. The government provided hearing aids to persons with hearing disabilities.

The HAICA ordered a one-week suspension of Radio Mosaique FM’s daily show “Ahla Sbeh” on March 3 for mocking persons with vision disabilities. The HAICA board called the show’s mockery “a serious violation of human dignity” and ordered the radio station to remove the episode, which had aired on February 23, from its website and social media pages.

For the 2019 national elections, the Independent High Authority for Elections worked with civil society organizations to prepare electoral handbooks in braille and to develop elections-related materials in sign language, including a mobile application that standardizes signed vocabulary and phrases related to elections. Civil society observer groups noted the election authority increased its efforts to ensure accessibility to persons with disabilities but that there continued to be a need for effective, timely voter education programs targeting persons with disabilities and their families.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Whereas the French version of the law uses only the word “sodomy,” the Arabic version, which takes precedence, specifically mentions homosexual acts between men and between women. Convictions carry up to a three-year prison sentence. According to NGOs authorities occasionally used the law to detain and question persons concerning their sexual activities and sexual orientation, reportedly at times based on appearance alone. NGOs reported that in some instances lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals were targeted under a penal code article criminalizing “infringement of morality or public morals,” which carries a penalty of six months in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars ($370).

LGBTQI+ individuals continued to face discrimination and violence, including death and rape threats and societal stigma, and fear of prosecution discouraged individuals from reporting discriminatory violence and threats.

Human rights groups reported an increase in arrests of LGBTQI+ individuals by police, as well as cases of societal harassment. Allegations included reports that some police unions targeted LGBTQI+ participants in January and February protests by posting their home addresses or pictures online and engaging in online hate speech. According to the Damj Association, an LGBTQI+ rights NGO, during the year authorities sentenced 28 LGBTQI+ persons under provisions of the criminal code criminalizing “sodomy,” “infringement of morality or public morals,” and “insulting a public official.”

On January 8, police arrested Zizi, a transgender woman, and four other transgender individuals on charges of public indecency and disturbing public morality. The Damj Association issued a statement on January 12 condemning the arrests and calling for the release of Zizi and other LGBTQI+ individuals in detention. The organization noted police officers denied Zizi access to a lawyer despite her request. On January 23, the First Instance Court of Sousse released all five individuals and dropped all charges against them.

After self-described queer activist Rania Amdouni participated in antigovernment protests in January and February, some police unions posted photographs of her on Facebook groups and called for her arrest. On February 27, Amdouni went to a police station in downtown Tunis to press charges against members of the security forces she claimed harassed and followed her. Police arrested her after she reportedly had a verbal altercation with a police officer at the station. On March 4, a Tunis court sentenced her to six months in prison for insulting a public servant. Amdouni’s supporters held a small protest outside of the Tunis court, and civil society organizations denounced her arrest and called for her release. On March 17, the Appeals Court of Tunis fined Amdouni 200 dinars ($75) and ordered her release. On June 24, she announced her departure from the country to seek asylum in France.

On March 22, Damj Association president Badr Baabou reported that four unidentified individuals physically assaulted him on March 10, targeting him for his LGBTQI+ rights advocacy. According to Damj, police officers in a vehicle approximately 65 feet away failed to respond to the physical assault or verbal harassment. Baabou filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office against his assailants and the security officials who allegedly did not intervene.

According to the Damj Association, Baabou was assaulted again, this time by two police officers in downtown Tunis, on October 21. According to public reports, the officers struck Baabou with multiple blows to his body and face. The government did not publicly comment on the case. On December 1, the National Police general inspector opened an investigation into the case and requested Damj’s assistance in collecting documents and statements related to reports of police abuse.

On October 26, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced the president of LGBTQI+-rights group Shams Association, Mounir Baatour, in absentia to one year in prison for a 2019 Facebook post that allegedly expressed “contempt of the Prophet.” Baatour has been residing outside Tunisia since 2019 after reportedly receiving death threats.

There continued to be no information on official discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, or health care.

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