The case against a Tunisian woman who was allegedly raped by police and then arrested for indecency has angered many Tunisians and become a rallying cry for critics of the country`s Islamist-led government.
It was one of the worst nights of his life, one he will never forget.
The evening started out fairly innocuously. It was September 3, and Ahmed T. was driving through a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, with his fiancée, Miriam S. [Names changed to protect their identities.]
Suddenly, three policemen stopped them. That’s when the nightmare began.
“One of them put me in handcuffs and demanded 300 dinars [150 euros],” said Ahmed in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Tunis. The 26-year-old Tunis resident did not have 300 dinars on him, so the policeman “took everything I had - about 40 dinars [20 euros] - and during that time, the two other policemen led my fiancée to the back of their car and raped her,” disclosed Ahmed, his voice quivering with raw emotion.
But it was not the end of the couple’s harrowing experience.
In a case that has sparked outrage across Tunisia – and among women’s and human rights activists across the world – Ahmed and Miriam now face charges of indecency.
On Wednesday, the couple was summoned to a Tunisian court where they confronted their three aggressors, two of whom are currently imprisoned on rape charges and awaiting trial.
According to the indictment, the couple was found in an “immoral position” in their car. In response to the charge, Ahmed told the judge they were seated in their respective car seats when the police stopped them.
The trial is set to start on October 2. If found guilty, Ahmed and Miriam both face a six-month jail sentence.
‘The victim turning into the accused’
Tunisian human rights groups have criticised what they call “a case of the victim turning into the accused”.
According to Miriam’s lawyer, Saiba Garrach, few women report rape in Tunisia precisely because they fear the kind of retaliation by authorities that her client is facing. “This case is part of a broader policy of intimidation against women to encourage them to stay at home,” said Garrach.
Miriam, who has degrees in finance and business management, remains unwilling to speak to the media. “She is traumatized by the accusation, she cries all the time,” Ahmed told FRANCE 24.
For him, the charges brought against them are a way to “pressure” the couple to “drop the complaint” it has lodged against police.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 hours after the couple’s court appearance Wednesday, Garrach praised Miriam’s “courage and good judgment to immediately go to a clinic, lodge a complaint and publicly denounce the rape.”
‘Policy of intimidation’
The trial against Miriam has nevertheless won her legions of supporters, including prominent NGOs, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, also known by its French acronym, ATFD.
"In the end, this woman was raped three times: when she was taken from the car - a private space; when the policemen assaulted her, and when the justice system turned her into the accused," noted Zeyneb Farhat, who has been at the forefront of the women’s rights group for over 20 years.
Miriam’s case has also given ammunition to opponents of Tunisia’s coalition government, which is led by the Islamist Ennahda party.
Tunisian feminists have decried the treatment of women by police since Ennahda came to power in October 2011. Activists say women are regularly harassed by law enforcement officials for their choice of attire or for going out at night without the supervision of male relatives.
“Rape as a tool of repression is still a practice in Tunisia,” blasted a spokesman for the left-wing Democratic Modernist Pole, a parliamentary opposition group, in an interview with the AFP news agency.
Dissenting voices have even risen from Ennahda’s own ruling coalition. Karima Souid, a lawmaker with the centre-left Ettakatol party, said she would sever ties with the government following the charges against Miriam. “The rape case and this morning’s hearing against the victim is the last straw, it makes me vomit,” she raged in a Facebook post.
In another interview with AFP, Tunisian government spokesman Khaled Tarrouche said the interior ministry had “nothing to do” with the charges against Miriam, saying it was solely the decision of the judiciary. “We behaved exactly as we should. We did what was necessary, the three officers were arrested immediately,” he said.
Tarrouche said this was an isolated case and urged people on Thursday "not to exploit this affair politically or in the media."
Meanwhile, angry Tunisians have called for a demonstration against the government on Saturday. Organisers say the protest is meant to call attention to the fragile status of women in the North African country.
Tunisia is widely believed to have among the most progressive laws regarding women in the Arab world. The Personal Status Code, or CSP, was enacted in August 1956 and establishes clear gender equality in most aspects of life in Tunisia. Nevertheless, discriminations persists, such as in inheritance statutes.
Ennahda’s efforts to modify the CSP have already triggered a backlash. In August, a proposition to include text in the new constitution that makes reference to the “complementary” nature of women, rather than “equal” status between the sexes, sparked street protests. The draft text was eventually dropped.