Tunisian civil society groups expressed outrage after a young woman was accused of indecency on Wednesday by two policemen jailed for raping her, amid criticism of the Islamist-led government on women’s rights.
The woman and her fiance were summoned by a magistrate to face the two policemen, both found guilty of rape and jailed, who accuse her of “indecency,” a group of Tunisian NGOs said. The crime is punishable by six months in prison.
The hearing was adjourned until next Tuesday, according to the NGOs, which urged rights activists to stand in solidarity with the accused, as social media networks called for a demonstration outside the court in Tunis on that day.
The interior ministry said the woman and her boyfriend were apprehended by three policemen on September 3, when they were found in an “immoral position.”
Two policemen then raped her, while the third held the fiance handcuffed. All three policemen were imprisoned.
The justice ministry said both sides might have broken the law.
“The crime committed by the two police agents does not rule out the possibility that she was doing something illegal” with her boyfriend, said a source at the ministry.
The NGOs, including the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian League of Human Rights, slammed the summons for indecency, which they described as a procedure that “transforms the victim into the accused.”
It “is designed to frighten and to force her and her fiance to waive their rights,” they added.
They also questioned “the seriousness of the government’s commitment to applying the national plan to combat violence against women.”
A coalition of leftwing opposition parties also condemned the actions of the police.
“Rape as a means of repression is still practised in Tunisia,” they said, calling for a law to protect “Tunisian men and women against all forms of physical, moral and sexual violence.”
MP Karima Souid, who belongs to Ettakatol, a centre-left group that partners the Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia’s ruling coalition, denounced her party’s support for the government in protest at the proceedings against the rape victim.
“I completely dissociate myself from this government. The rape case and the summoning of the victim this morning is the last straw,” she wrote on Facebook.
Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche told AFP that the ministry “had nothing to do with” the proceedings against the young woman, emphasising that the decision to summon her was taken by the magistrate.
“In this case, we acted as was required of us. What had to be done was done, and the three police agents were arrested straight away,” he said, insisting that cases of police assaulting women were “isolated.”
“We shouldn’t read into this anything organised, or generalised,” he added. “The police are also citizens first and foremost, and when they commit crimes, the law is applied unequivocally.”
The Tunisian NGOs dismissed Tarrouch’s comments, accusing him of trying to “justify” the crimes of the police.
“We consider unacceptable the statements by the interior ministry spokesman justifying the violence, and believe they have multiplied the violence suffered by the victim, which breaches the most basic human rights.
Since the Islamists’ rise to power after last year’s revolution, feminist groups have accused police of regularly harassing women, by challenging them over their clothing or if they go out at night unaccompanied by family members.
Ennahda also provoked a storm of protest for proposing an article in the new constitution that referred to the “complementarity” of men to women rather than their equality.
Many saw the proposed article, which was abandoned on Monday, as a ploy by Islamists to reverse the principle of gender equality that made Tunisia a beacon of modernity in the Arab world when it was introduced six decades ago.