Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a multiparty, unicameral parliamentary system and a president with powers specified in the constitution. During the year the country held parliamentary and presidential elections in the first transition of power since its first democratic elections in 2014. On October 6, the country held open and competitive parliamentary elections that resulted in the Nahda Party winning a plurality of the votes, granting the party the opportunity to form a new government. President Kais Saied, an independent candidate without a political party, came to office on October 23 after winning the country’s second democratic presidential elections. On July 25, President Caid Essebsi died of natural causes and power transferred to Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur as acting president for the three months prior to the election of President Saied on October 13.
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.
Significant human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, primarily by terrorist groups; allegations of torture by government agents, which reportedly decreased during the year; arbitrary arrests and detentions of suspects under antiterrorism or emergency laws; undue restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including criminalization of libel; corruption, although the government took steps to combat it; societal violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct that resulted in arrests and abuse by security forces.
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although government officials acknowledged a Ministry of Justice effort to review and revise the 1968 code of criminal procedures (CPP) and the 1913 Penal Code to comply with the 2014 constitution, activists and members of civil society expressed concern with the slow pace of reforms. Apart from a few discrete modifications to sections governing rape and pretrial detention, no changes have been made to the penal code since the country became a democracy, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict with the rights and freedoms protected in the constitution. For the CPP, however, the government has introduced notable changes, including the introduction of alternatives to incarceration and probation, reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CCP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare the draft law to parliament for review and adoption. The penal code project remained under review.
Civil society activists continue to cite the lack of a constitutional court as hindering efforts to align existing legislation with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, particularly legislation pertaining to individual freedoms and fundamental rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. It prescribes the creation of a constitutional court whose authority includes overseeing the constitutionality of draft laws and acknowledging permanent or temporary vacancies in the office of the president. Parliament advanced the establishment of the court in March by nominating one of the nine court members but could not reach an agreement on the remaining candidates for the court. Legal scholars stress that there remains the potential for a constitutional crisis given differing legal interpretations of constitutional provisions that require the court’s action. In one example during the year, political leaders agreed to a solution to ensure a peaceful transition of power following the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in July but did not resolve the underlying ambiguity created by the lack of a constitutional court.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Citizens exercised their ability to vote in legislative and presidential elections that observers characterized as generally open, competitive, and well run. Officials reported that approximately 3.9 million persons voted in the second round of presidential elections on October 13, placing the turnout at 55 percent. Official elections observers generally agreed these elections were successful with no widespread fraud, violence, or attempts to undermine the credibility of the results. In addition observers’ overall assessment was that the process for both elections was satisfactory, transparent, and valid, despite detailing faults with certain technical aspects of the electoral process and some electoral law violations. International observers expressed concern that the arrest and detention of one of the presidential candidates, Nabil Karoui, denied him an equal opportunity to campaign for both the presidential and parliamentary elections, a right guaranteed by the electoral law. Authorities arrested Karoui after a court ordered his detention in a 2016 case involving money laundering and tax evasion charges. Without a conviction and court order to specifically restrict his candidacy, Karoui remained on the ballot for the September 15 presidential elections. Ranking second in the elections with 15.6 percent of the votes, Karoui proceeded to the runoff election on October 13.
The courts denied Karoui’s bail request on four separate occasions: September 3, September 13, September 18, and October 1, citing lack of jurisdiction. Karoui and his political party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), argued that his continued detention was politically motivated to limit his party’s success and to exclude his participation in the presidential elections.
The Court of Cassation issued a judgement on October 9 ordering Karoui’s release and citing procedural errors in his original detention. Although Karoui was released prior to the October 13 elections and appeared in a televised debate with his opponent Kais Saied on October 11, international observers expressed concern that the timing of his detention and release appeared, on the surface, to be politically motivated, or at least influenced by the electoral calendar.
Judicial authorities stressed that Karoui’s arrest complied with established procedures and the timing of his arrest did not take into consideration political calculations or the electoral timeline.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As of September the country had 221 registered political parties. Political parties obtained the highest number of seats in the new parliament compared with independents and coalition lists. Authorities rejected parties that did not receive accreditation due to incomplete applications or because their programs were inconsistent with laws prohibiting discrimination and parties based on religion. Out of a total of 97 candidates for the presidential elections, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) accepted 26 candidates and rejected 71 for failing to meet the candidacy criteria.
During the presidential and legislative elections, the ISIE granted accreditations to more than 33,000 observers representing candidates, international observation missions, and local organizations. More than 18,000 local observers received accreditation. Local observer organization Mourakiboun reported that the majority of its observers were authorized access to polling stations without restriction, with access improving with each of the three elections. By the October 13 presidential election, 99 percent of Mourkiboun’s observers reported unrestricted access. Other local observer groups noted similar improvements to their access.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority communities in the political process, and they did participate, including two women who ran for president during the first round of presidential elections on September 15. Women’s representation decreased from 35 percent to 23 percent in the newly elected parliament, with only 54 female Members of Parliament elected on October 6, down from 68 elected in 2014. In a first for Tunisia, one openly gay candidate submitted his candidacy for president, although he ultimately did not meet the endorsement requirements to qualify for the election.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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 2018 law criminalizing gender-based violence adds or updates articles in the penal code to meet international best practices. It criminalizes incest, sexual harassment of women in public places, and gender discrimination.
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 provides penalties for domestic violence and allows women to seek restraining orders against their abusers without filing a criminal case or filing for divorce. The Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood and Senior Citizens established a national hotline for victims of violence. There were five centers dedicated to providing assistance to female victims of violence, one managed by the ministry and four by civil society organizations.
On May 22, Minister of Women, Family, Childhood, and Senior Citizens (MWFCS) Neziha Laabidi said that authorities annually receive an average of 40,000 complaints of domestic violence brought by women against their husbands. Civil society representatives said many incidents go unreported.
Rape remained a taboo subject, and cultural pressures often dissuaded victims from reporting sexual assault. There were no government public education programs on domestic violence, including rape. Victims received services at two dozen social centers throughout the country, in addition to the five centers dedicated to victims of gender-based violence.
On June 10, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced five individuals to life in prison for raping a 27-year-old woman. During the trial the defendants confessed to their crime, which took place in 2017 in the governorate of Manouba.
Sexual Harassment: The 2018 gender-based violence law includes a revised article related to sexual harassment. It allows up to a two-year sentence for the harasser and a 5,000-dinar ($1,740) fine, instead of the previous one year in prison. The law further clarifies that sexual harassment can include any act, gesture, or words with sexual connotation. The punishment is doubled if the victim is a child or the perpetrator has authority over the victim.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
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 (Islamic law) as a basis for customary law in 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 those given sons. Non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands may not inherit from each other, unless they seek a legal judgement 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 explicitly requires equal pay for equal work, and the government generally enforced it. The law allows female employees in the public sector to receive two-thirds of their full-time salary for half-time work, provided they have at least one child younger than age 16 or a child with special needs, regardless of age. Qualifying women may apply for the benefit for a three-year period, renewable twice for a maximum of nine years. Societal and cultural barriers significantly reduced women’s participation in the formal labor force, particularly in managerial positions. Women in the private sector earned on average one-quarter less than men for similar work. The 2018 law on gender-based violence contains provisions aimed at eliminating the gender-based wage gap.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth from one’s parents, and the law provides for a period of 10 days to register a newborn. Thereafter, parents have 30 days to explain why they failed to register a newborn and complete the registration. Female citizens can transmit citizenship on an equal basis with male citizens, and there is no discrimination between a mother and father regarding passport application and authorization to leave the country.
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: Anyone who has sexual relations with a child younger than age 16 is subject to 20 years in prison with the possibility for a life sentence due aggravating circumstances, including incest or the use of violence. Under previous laws, intercourse with a girl younger than 15 without the use of violence was punishable by six years in prison; the 2018 law raised the age of consent to 16, and removed a clause in the legal code that allowed the court to drop the charges of sex with a minor if the perpetrator agreed to marry the victim, with the approval of her parents. The law prohibits child pornography. UNICEF reported that one in four children live in poverty and that 88 percent of children ages one to 14 are subjected to physical, verb, or psychological violence in their homes and at school. The MWFCS reported to media on October 17 that during the year it received approximately 17,000 notifications related to child abuse cases, which the ministry attributed to “growing awareness among citizens about the need to denounce perpetrators of violence.”
On January 31, authorities closed an unlicensed, privately run Quranic school in Regueb, Sidi Bouzid Governorate and arrested its director and administrators on charges of human trafficking, polygamy, and suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization. Authorities reported many of the children were mistreated and were the victims of economic and sexual abuse. On the same day as the closure, the public prosecutor initiated an investigation into the allegations of child exploitation, and a family judge ordered the transfer of the children to a state-run center in Tunis specializing in caring for children who were victims of abuse. In July the court sentenced one adult male who was affiliated with the school to 20 years in prison on charges of child sexual abuse.
On March 12, the MWFCS reported that a teacher in Sfax was accused of sexually abusing 20 elementary school students. The ministry announced it would provide the children with psychological support. Subsequent to these allegations, the Ministry of Education indicated the initial investigation revealed that these crimes took place outside of the school and that, as a result, the ministry would suspend any teacher providing private classes outside of the educational framework. Media later reported that authorities issued an arrest warrant against the teacher, although as of September there were no updates to the investigation.
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.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law criminalizes sodomy. Convictions carry up to a three-year prison sentence. According to NGOs, authorities occasionally used the law against sodomy to detain and question persons about their sexual activities and sexual orientation, reportedly at times based on appearance alone. In some instances NGOs reported that LGBTI individuals were targeted under the article of the penal code that criminalizes “infringement of morality or public morals,” which carries a penalty of six months in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars ($347).
LGBTI individuals continued to face discrimination and violence, including death and rape threats, although societal stigma and fear of prosecution under sodomy laws discouraged individuals from reporting problems. On July 18, the First Instance Court of Sousse sentenced two young men to 18 months in prison each under Article 230 of the 1913 Penal Code that criminalizes same-sex relations. According to Shams Association, one of the accused reported being the victim of sexual harassment while in detention due to his sexual orientation.
Human rights organizations and LGBTI-focused NGOs stated that judges continued to sentence individuals to jail under the sodomy law, and since judges often assumed guilt of individuals who refused to submit voluntarily to an exam, individuals felt coerced to submit to anal examinations. On May 17, a coalition of NGOs, the Civil Collective for Individual Liberties, called on the government to accelerate the establishment of the Constitutional Court as a guarantor of rights, decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct, end forced or coerced anal examinations, recognize the rights of transgender people, and end harassment of LGBTI-rights organizations. The collective noted, “despite the commitment by Tunisian authorities since 2017 not to resort to the use of anal examinations, courts continue to order this practice.”
No laws restrict freedom of expression, association, or peaceful assembly for those speaking out about LGBTI issues. Nevertheless, in February the government appealed a 2016 court ruling overturning the government’s complaint that the Shams Association’s charter did not allow it to explicitly advocate for gay rights. Adding to its 2016 case, the government stated, “the Tunisian society rejects homosexuality culturally and legally,” and that the Shams Association violated Article 3 of Decree Law 3 “by conducting activities that contradict Tunisia’s laws and culture.” On May 17, the Tunis Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Shams Association, noting that Shams did not violate the law by advocating for LGBTI rights.
During the year a small number of politicians offered support for increased rights for members of the LGBTI community. In October 2018, 10 Members of Parliament submitted a draft bill proposing decriminalization of homosexuality, recognition of gender identity, and penalization of homophobia. In a February 11 media interview, Nahda Party leader Lotfi Zitoun condemned the continued use of anal examinations as a violation of human rights and individual dignity. On April 3, the president of the Machrou Tounes party, Mohsen Marzouk, met representatives from the Shams Association and publicly expressed his support for LGBTI rights.
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.