Tunisians protest over alleged rape by police

October 2, 2012 - 9:35 AM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Hundreds of Tunisians protested Tuesday in support of a woman who says she was raped by police and is facing accusations of violating modesty laws.

The case has drawn nationwide attention in Tunisia, where a moderate Islamist-led coalition is working on a new constitution after decades of dictatorship and the question of how it will define women's rights is a sensitive topic.

Legislators, students, teachers and lawyers took part in the protest at the central Tunis courthouse to denounce what they say are unfounded claims against the woman aimed at persuading her to drop her accusation against police.

The 27-year-old woman says three police officers stopped her in a car last month, and one of them held her fiance back while the other two raped her. The police officers deny wrongdoing, and say she was engaged in immoral behavior with her fiance when they stopped her.

The woman is being questioned Tuesday by investigators, who will decide whether to pursue the accusations against her. If she's convicted of immoral behavior, she could face up to six months in prison.

Online, on TV and in the street, Tunisians are expressing indignation, accusing the authorities of trying to cover up wrongdoing and blame the victim.

"No to police who rape and a complicit justice system" read one banner at Tuesday's protest. "Tunisian women will not submit, they will triumph or they will die" read another.

Both the woman's accusation against police and the ensuing public uproar would have been unthinkable under longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has ousted in an uprising last year that unleashed the Arab Spring revolutions.

Lawyer Emna Zahrouni says the woman has come under pressure to drop her accusation against police but is determined "to carry this through to the end to win justice."

A lawyer for the police, Lamia Hamrouni, said Tuesday that she hopes "equitable measures" will be taken against any guilty parties.

The case has affected Tunisia's national debate over women's rights. Tunisia's old constitution was unusually progressive for the region when it came to women's rights, and some fear the current Islamist leadership wants to roll those rights back.

"This case is threatening not only women's rights but all of society. The worst thing is that some forces are trying to send the country back decades," said Mohamed Tahar, an office worker at the protest.