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 parliamentary and presidential elections in the first transition of power since its first democratic elections in 2014. In October 2019 the country held free and fair 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, 2019, after winning the country’s second democratic presidential elections. Three months prior to the elections, President Caid Essebsi died of natural causes, and power transferred to Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur as acting president until President Saied took office. On February 20, parliament approved Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s cabinet. Prime Minister Fakhfakh resigned from his position on July 15 ahead of a parliamentary vote of no confidence responding to allegations of a conflict of interest. On July 25, President Saied named Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi prime minister-designate. On September 2, parliament approved Mechichi’s cabinet.
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. Security forces committed periodic abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, primarily by terrorist groups; allegations of torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests and detentions of suspects under antiterrorism or emergency laws; undue restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including criminalization of libel; widespread corruption, although the government took steps to combat it; societal violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct that resulted in arrests and abuse by security forces; 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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, 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. NGOs reported that in some instances lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals were targeted under the penal code article that criminalizes “infringement of morality or public morals,” which carries a penalty of six months in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars ($369).
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 January 13, an officer from the Seventh Police Station in downtown Tunis and two accomplices allegedly assaulted three transgender women, using Tasers and their fists. They left one individual, nicknamed Frifta, with serious injuries, including internal bleeding and a skull fracture, according to the LGBTI-rights organization Damj. Damj, in partnership with Lawyers without Borders (ASF), assisted Frifta in seeking medical care and legal recourse. According to Damj, Frifta filed a complaint against an officer on January 11 for harassment of sex workers and encountered the same officer while walking in Tunis two days later with friends. The officer, accompanied by two others, attacked her in retaliation for her earlier complaint. The Ministry of Interior suspended the primary officer involved and opened an internal investigation, while the Ministry of Justice General Prosecutors’ Office, initiated a separate criminal investigation. Both investigations remained underway. On June 17, Damj said the court in El Kef issued prison sentences in three cases under Article 230, which criminalizes same-sex relations. In one case an individual who filed a complaint of police abuse was charged under articles criminalizing homosexuality and offending a police officer.
On July 28, the appeals court upheld the conviction of two men accused of sodomy but reduced their sentence to one year in prison. The First Instance Court of El Kef initially sentenced the two men on June 3 to two years in prison for homosexuality. A lawyer provided by ASF assisted the defendants and led the appeal process.
According to Damj and ASF, 121 individuals were convicted under Article 230 in 2019, with anal examinations used as the basis for the majority of these convictions. In March-September, Damj registered 21 cases of violence against transgender individuals in public places, 10 cases of torture, and two cases of bullying by security forces in detention facilities. Authorities also issued 12 prison sentences against transgender individuals and gay men under Articles 230, 226, and 125 of the criminal code, which criminalize, respectively, “sodomy,” “deliberately declaring immorality,” and “insulting a public official.” Human rights organizations and LGBTI-focused NGOs stated that 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 individuals, 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 2019 the government appealed a 2016 court ruling overturning the government’s complaint that the Shams Association’s charter did not allow it to advocate explicitly 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.” In May 2019 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. On February 21, the Supreme Court of Appeals issued a final sentence affirming legal status as a civil society organization to the LGBTI-rights Shams Association and rejected the state’s argument that Shams violated the law of associations by advocating for the rights of homosexuals.
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.