WASHINGTON - A longtime human rights lawyer who is running for Tunisia’s presidency as the country's first gay candidate says he is receiving threats from radical Islamist groups.
Mounir Baatour, founder of the Tunisian Liberal Party, recently announced his candidacy for president, vowing to bring about justice and equality in the Muslim-majority, North African nation.
“I have received a number of threats after my announcement, especially through social media,” Baatour told VOA in an interview. “Many of these threats are from extremist individuals. But no political parties have responded negatively to my announcement.”
Baatour, 48, said his campaign focuses on employment, equal rights for women and the country’s criminal code.
Law 230 of the Tunisian criminal justice system defines homosexuality as a crime and penalizes people convicted of being homosexual with up to three years in prison.
Baatour founded the Tunisian Liberal Party in 2011 with a clear objective to promote human rights and to create a constitutional court that would protect the country’s constitution and its democratic tenets.
Tunisia’s presidential election will take place in November, following a parliamentary election that will be held in October.
Both elections are expected to involve fierce competition among several Islamic and secular groups, including two of the most powerful political parties in the country — the Islamic Ennahda Party and the secular Nidaa Tounes party.
“For years, I have fought for human rights, mainly for LGBT rights, without any tangible progress,” Baatour said. “Therefore, I decided to run for (the) presidency and work toward positive change for individual freedoms and minorities’ rights."
Some experts say that Baatour is a marginal candidate and therefore his sexuality is not viewed as a major issue by many Tunisian voters.
“I don’t think he will have any problems campaigning,” said Kouichi Shirayanagi, an American reporter who has lived in Tunisia since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
“He just won’t have much support, because there are certain parties who will get the vast majority of votes,” he told VOA.
Despite Baatour's low chances of winning, some gay advocacy groups have expressed concerns that his nomination could enrage extremist groups in the country and thus put the LGBTQ community in danger.
Last month, 18 Tunisian organizations representing gay rights signed a petition that refused to support him.
“We think that Mr. Baatour represents not only a threat but also a huge danger for our community,” the petition said.
Baatour, however, successfully collected more than 10,000 signatures required for his nomination eligibility.
Past legal challenges
Baatour is also the head of the Association Shams, a nongovernmental organization that promotes LBGTQ rights.
The Tunisian government has tried to shut down the organization through a court order for violating the law, which requires such organizations to respect Law No. 230.
But the country’s appeals court ruled in favor of Shams, allowing the group to continue its activities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement in February calling on the Tunisian government to stop its attempts to close the Shams Association.
“If organizations that defend human rights and sexual minorities are shut down, Tunisia’s image as an island of freedom and democracy in the region will take a big hit,” Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at HRW, said in a report published in February.
Baatour was imprisoned for three months on sodomy charges in 2013.
“The humanitarian situation of the LGBT community in Tunisia is very bad. Our community is always threatened, and access to justice is hindered,” Baatour said.
Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, leading to the ousting of the country’s longtime autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Despite Tunisia’s relatively smooth political transition, the country continues to suffer from corruption, a stalled economy and threats by extremist groups.
Since mid-2015, the country has been in a state of emergency. In July, Tunisia's first freely elected president after the uprising, Beji Caid Essebsi, died at the age of 92. During his funeral procession, tight security measures were taken to prevent any terrorist attacks.
According to various reports, approximately 5,500 Tunisians have traveled to Syria to fight primarily with IS.
Tunisian Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou said recently that authorities have blocked about 8,000 jihadists from leaving the country.