Tunis judge questions raped woman over indecency

Accused of immoral behaviour, an unidentified Tunisian woman, second right, her face hidden by a black veil, is led by her lawyer, Saida Garrach, as they leave the central Tunis courthouse. Photo / AP
Accused of immoral behaviour, an unidentified Tunisian woman, second right, her face hidden by a black veil, is led by her lawyer, Saida Garrach, as they leave the central Tunis courthouse. Photo / AP

A young woman allegedly raped by two policemen was questioned on Tuesday by a magistrate in Tunis who is to decide whether she is to be charged with indecency, a court source said, in a case that has sparked outrage.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the policemen, arrested shortly after the incident and now awaiting trial, would be "severely judged."

At the end of the hearing, conducted by magistrate Mohamed Ben Meftah and lasting more than two hours, the woman's lawyers said they were "optimistic" the proceedings against her and her fiance would be dropped.

"It would be unreasonable to maintain such accusations. I am confident about the fairness of the law," Emna Zahrouni told AFP, without giving details of the morning session.

Monia Bousselmi, another lawyer, said "I told the judge he had a historic responsibility.

The whole world, the media, Tunisia's youth are awaiting his decision, which will be decisive in establishing the rule of law."

According to a court source, the magistrate should decide in the hours or days to come whether to "dismiss the case or transfer it to the competent court."

The 27-year-old woman, who was allegedly raped on September 3, left the courtroom in Tunis without commenting, her faced hidden behind a scarf and dark glasses.

On her arrival, the tearful young woman implored AFP: "The whole world supports me. I ask you for your support too."

She and her fiance are both under investigation for "indecency," a crime that carries a possible jail sentence of up to six months.

The accusation is based on the testimony of the alleged rapists, policemen who say they took the couple by surprise in an "immoral position" just before the attack purportedly took place.

A judicial source said the police had taken the couple by surprise as they were having sex in their car.

Two of them then took the woman to the police car, where they raped her, while a third restrained and tried to extort money from her fiance, the source added.

-- 'Woman with a cause' --

The president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, Ahlem Belhadj, a lawyer who is also representing the woman, said she was in a "very fragile" psychological state, but remained determined to fight.

"This is a woman, a victim with a cause," she said.

"It is a case that shames Tunisia. Within our culture, even in the legal system, there is a tendency to hold the victims responsible for their rape," she added.

The young couple came face to face with the police accused at a court hearing last week.

Prime Minister Jebali, in an interview with Belgian daily Le Soir published Tuesday on the newspaper's website, condemned "this barbaric act" by the police, which he said was "unforgivable."

"According to the judicial authorities, there may be a case of indecency to answer, but the main thing in this affair is the unacceptable attack on the dignity of a woman... (for which) these policemen will be severely judged,"

The case has sparked a storm of protest in Tunisia, with NGOs, media and opposition figures already charging that the proceedings have transformed the victim into the accused and reflect the Islamist-led government's policy towards women.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the court early on Tuesday waving banners and placards and shouting slogans in support of the woman.

The justice ministry has defended its actions, insisting that a rape victim should not benefit from immunity if she "has committed acts prohibited by law."

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.

The principle of gender equality, enshrined in the Personal Status Code that was promulgated in 1956 under Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, made the north African nation a beacon of modernity in the Arab world.

Ennahda, the Islamist party that heads the ruling coalition, was heavily criticised for proposing an article in the new constitution, since dropped, that referred to the "complementarity" of men to women, rather than their equality.

- AFP

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