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Attacks, surveillance, moving home every six months - The life of an LGBT activist in Tunisia

Badr Baabou accepted an award for his work in Dublin this week.

BADR BAABOU DESCRIBES himself as an “eternal optimist”.

He has been arrested multiple times, his home has been targeted and ransacked and he has to use encrypted messaging apps and multiple email accounts to evade hacking and surveillance. Being an LGBT activist in Tunisia requires an abundance of optimism.

His life as an activist began in 2002 when he was 22-years-old, he told TheJournal.ie in Dublin this week.  As part of a group supporting members of the LGBT community he had helped set up secure housing for 20 gay people who had been evicted from their homes by police.

Two years later, more than 24 gay men and transgender women in the capital city of Tunis were arrested in coffee shops, bars and baths. And then in 2008 there were further arrests in Tunis and in Sousse, the country’s third largest city. 

We were facing a big problem because even the lawyer wasn’t excited to defend these [so-called] ‘perverted people’ so we were trying to hire lawyers, but it wasn’t really possible There was only a very young woman who was just starting and she was the only one who accepted the cases.

From this point, Baabou said they started to put more structure in place so that legal support and advice was always available in cases where a person had been arrested or if they lost their job because their employer found out they were gay.

After the revolution in Tunisia, they were able to formalise their position and set up an organisation, called DAMJ, in 2011.

Violence

The revolution did not change the fact that homosexuality in Tunisia is illegal, however, and LGBT people still come up against serious social discrimination. They face the threat of violence both from police and from other members of the public – without consequences for the offenders. 

Last year more than 120 people were arrested and jailed for homosexuality and in a three month period from January to March in 2018, DAMJ recorded 22 cases of people being attacked by police. 

Victims are often afraid to go to police to report hate crimes, Baabou said, as they may end up being arrested themselves. In one example he gave, a man who had been attacked and robbed by two men was jailed for 11 months – his attackers were not prosecuted. 

In February this year a man who tried to report a rape to police was jailed for eight months for engaging in homosexual acts. The men who attacked him received sentences of six months for homosexuality, with a further two months for physical assault and theft. 

‘They are spying on me’

Baabou has to live a careful life, always thinking about where he will go, who will be there and how he communicates. Because he is a high-profile member of the LGBT activist community, he is somewhat protected from being pursued by police as a gay man – they do not want the bad publicity. 

However he said there are organised groups, which he believes are supported by the police, who are watching members of his organisation and targeting them. 

“I have to move every six or seven months, change the place where I live,” he explained. 

Last July his front door was broken in and his personal laptop, one of the organisation’s laptop and a number of external hard drives were taken. Other valuables that would have been attractive to a regular burglar were not stolen, he said.

He spent three days staying with a friend afterwards until police approached this friend with questions about his own sexual orientation and connection to DAMJ. Baabou moved to another friend’s home and five days later they were also burgled. 

They are spying on me all the time, this is for sure. This is why when I communicate with the group I prefer all the time to use Signal, it’s safer and secure. I have many email boxes so if they hack one I have others.

This lifestyle has an impact on his relationships too. 

“I can’t explain everything and I can’t say everything to them,” he said. During this period last summer after his home was broken into, he found it difficult to explain to his partner at the time.

“He was asking why am I doing that, why don’t I want to see him, why can’t we meet normally, so it can be extremely difficult.”

He has been arrested a number of times, but never jailed.

“I want to be jailed – I know it’s crazy – but I want to be jailed because people are usually afraid and can’t defend themselves when they are in front of a judge. I will have a lot to say.”

‘Beacon of hope’

Baabou was in Dublin this week to receive an award for his work from Front Line Defenders.

In his speech he described Ireland as a “beacon of hope” for LGBT rights. When speaking to TheJournal.ie about Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum, his face lit up. But Baabou knows his country is not there yet. The priority now is changing the criminal laws and preventing violence. 

And while the authorities in Tunisia appear slow to change, there has been a shift in societal views of homosexuality that give him hope, he said. 

“The language used for LGBT people has changed among the general population. Even the most homophobic people now will not say things like ‘sinner’ or ‘perverted people’, they will say ‘gay man’ and ‘lesbian’. At least now it is a public debate. A few years ago it was really a big taboo, no one could talk about it and now everyone talks about it. 

There are talk shows that discuss homosexuality, it is in the newspapers and random people on the street are talking about it. It’s funny because when I hear someone talking about homosexuality, especially using our words and terms, I go after them in the street to listen to what they’re saying. There is more acceptance, but of course there are still the attacks and aggression too. 

There are even some politicians – albeit only a small number – who are willing to speak openly about their support for LGBT rights. Change will come slowly, Baabou said, but it will come.

“The focus now is to keep people safe and fighting discrimination and now is the time to do it. I’m convinced we will do it.”

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