Hundreds of protesters thronged to a Tunis courtroom Tuesday as a woman and her fiance who accused police officers of rape and extortion defended themselves against allegations of indecency.
The case has outraged Tunisian feminists and human rights groups, who said the charges are an attempt to humiliate and frighten the couple, discouraging others from reporting police abuse. It has focused new attention on police impunity and the rights of women in the North African country, the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, as it tries to set its path after the ouster of autocratic President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
Last month, the couple said that two police officers stopped them and raped the woman in the back of their car while a third officer took her fiance to an ATM and tried to extort money from him. After the police officers were arrested and charged with rape and extortion, the officers alleged that they found the couple in an “immoral position.” The couple could now face indecency charges punishable with up to six months in prison.
The two were questioned Tuesday at the courthouse to decide whether the woman would be prosecuted for immoral behavior, according to the Associated Press. No decision was immediately announced.
Immorality charges have been used over the last year and a half to quiet government critics, Amnesty International said, arguing that the case against the couple should be dropped. Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni  said the Interior Ministry, by holding a news conference to announce the indecency allegations, “tried to manipulate the public opinion and to make them forget the real scandal: the rape.”
The Interior Ministry has since tried to distance itself from the case, emphasizing that charges against the couple were made by the courts, not the ministry, and that the three officers were immediately arrested, Agence France-Presse reported . In an interview published Tuesday, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told Belgian newspaper Le Soir  that the alleged rape was an unjustified and barbaric act that would be judged harshly.
Feminist groups say the case reflects the broader views of Ennadha, the moderate Islamist party that leads the coalition government. They complain that officials have resisted installing policies that would enshrine gender equality; the government had considered calling women “complementary” to men in the constitution.
Meanwhile, Tunisian police have been in disarray since the revolution, with some officers left over from the authoritarian government of Ben Ali, and some newcomers hastily recruited and trained, said William Lawrence, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. The courts, in turn, have been overwhelmed by cases tied to the revolution and its aftermath, he said.
“These serious deficiencies in the police and the judicial system create a context of impunity, and lack of institutional support for women makes their fears all the more palpable,” Lawrence said.
Tunisia has historically outperformed neighboring countries in wage equality and political representation for women. But feminist groups struggled to regroup after the revolution because many were closely tied to the Ben Ali government and were seen as tainted by it, Lawrence said. For many poorer Tunisian women, economic issues loom much larger than civil rights.
Activists hope the protests will nonetheless sway the courts.
“The Tunisian courts have an opportunity to drop these charges and instead focus on the very real concerns with regard to rape and extortion that have been leveled against the officers,” said Sanjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa director for Amnesty International USA.
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