Tunisia: Release prominent LGBTI rights activist jailed for insulting police

Tunisian authorities should immediately release Rania Amdouni, a prominent women’s rights defender and LGBTI activist, sentenced to six months in prison for “insulting a public officer”, and drop the spurious charges against her, said Amnesty International, ahead of her appeal on 17 March.

On 27 February, Rania Amdouni went to a police station to file a complaint about the continuous harrassement she has faced from the police in relation to her LGBTI activism and her participation in protests against police violence and deteriorating socio-economic conditions. Instead of registering her complaint, she was arrested.

“Rania Amdouni’s arrest and prosecution sends a chilling message to activists who face harassment that if they dare to come forward to report police abuse they risk being turned from victim to accused,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“It is outrageous that Rania Amdouni has been sentenced to six months in prison simply for making comments deemed offensive about the police.  She must be immediately and unconditionally released and all the charges against her should be dropped.”

Rania Amdouni’s arrest and prosecution sends a chilling message to activists who face harassment that if they dare to come forward to report police abuse they risk being turned from victim to accused

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International

According to Rania Amdouni’s lawyer, when police officers at the Septième police station in downtown Tunis turned her away, she left – distraught – and began shouting in the street, swearing at the police. Police officers then arrested her and held her at a detention centre for two days.

On 1 March, without being questioned or given the right to challenge her detention, Rania Amdouni was formally charged with “insulting a public officer while he was carrying out his duties,” punishable by up to one year in prison under Article 125 of the Penal Code. She was also charged with “causing embarrassment and disruption,” and “visible drunkenness.”

On 4 March, the District Court of Tunis convicted her on all three charges and took her into custody. She is currently imprisoned at the Manouba women’s prison in Tunis.

In a Facebook post published after her arrest and while in custody at the Septième police station, Rania Amdouni said: “I [have been] arrested because I cannot accept this harassment that I’m subjected to anymore.”

Amnesty International issued a report in November 2020, documenting an increasing number of criminal prosecutions on overly broad Penal Code charges that unduly limit free expression, usually at the instigation of security or state officials, in response to criticsm. 

Under international law, “insult” is not a recognizable offense and does not justify a limitation on freedom of expression. In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee has stated that “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties”.

Relentless police harassment

Rania Amdouni has been at the forefront of protests against police violence and for individual rights and freedoms in the country. She is a member of DAMJ, the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, and the President of the association Chouf Minorities.

In August 2020, a police officer verbally abused Rania Amdouni, as she walked by in downtown Tunis, leading to a verbal altercation between the two. This attracted attention from passers-by who then attacked her and three of her friends. The police stood by, failing to intervene and inciting the violence by using homophobic and transphobic insults.

Rania Amdouni and her friends pressed charges and an investigation was opened. However, despite the fact the identities of the officers involved are known, they were not suspended or arrested following the investigation.

Police harassment against Rania Amdouni escalated after her participation in socio economic protests in January 2021. Photos of her standing in front of police officers holding shields during a demonstration on 30 January went viral and unleashed a campaign of online harassment against her based on her gender identity and her appearance. She has stated that police unions have shared her photos on social media accompanied by degrading comments.

Her lawyer said that he had filed at least five complaints against police officers on her behalf but no investigations have been initiated.
Tunisian authorities have recently arrested and prosecuted several prominent activists on spurious charges, including “insulting a public officer”.

On 6 March, police forces arrested Mehdi Barhoumi, programmes manager at International Alert, Monther Souidi, from the Tunisian Forum on Economic and Social Rights, and Sami Hmaied, an architect, during an evening gathering on the rooftop of Souidi’s home. According to their lawyer, a policeman had accused them of throwing a plastic water bottle at him and of insulting police unions.  All three were charged with “insulting a public officer” under Article 125 of the penal code, but were released provisionally on 8 March.  

“Tunisia’s authorities are using Article 125 as a catch-all charge to prosecute all those who dare to criticize the police or complain about their conduct. They must stop prosecuting activists and human rights defenders on vague charges and urgently protect the right to freedom of expression,” said Amna Guellali.