By Elizia Volkmann
TUNIS, May 21 (Openly) - After winning a four-year battle against government efforts to shut it down, Tunisia's leading LGBT+ rights group said it will push for gay sex to be decriminalised amid rising convictions for same-sex relations.
The government went to court to block Shams when the advocacy group registered in 2015, saying that the correct process had not been followed. A 2016 ruling in Shams' favour was upheld by the Court of Appeal on Monday.
Shams' director Mounir Baatour said the court victory would help its campaign to legalise same-sex relations, which are punishable with three years imprisonment under Article 230 of the North African country's penal code.
"It validates the legal right of Shams to fight against Article 230 and confirms the right for Shams to fight for the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Tunisia," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Same-sex activity is illegal in most of the Middle East, save for Israel, Jordan and Bahrain, according to the ILGA, an LGBT+ rights group.
Convictions for same-sex relations rose by 60% last year to 127 from 79 in 2017, according to Shams, which documents arrests and cases. It recorded more than 25 convictions in the first quarter of 2019.
Despite the government's defeat, the ruling was welcomed by Fadel Mafoudh, an official in the Tunisian prime minister's office, who works on human rights issues.
The judgment "once again proves Tunisia is a state that respects the rule of the law and that its judiciary is independent of the power of the government", said Mafoudh.
The president set up the Commission for Individual Liberties and Equality (COLLIBE) in 2017, which recommended that Tunisia decriminalise same-sex relations and end forced anal examinations by police doctors on men suspected of being gay.
But the project ground to a halt when members of parliament refused to debate COLLIBE's proposals, according to Shams, which was one of the civil liberties groups advising the commission.
"It's encouraging to see a court in Tunisia standing up for freedom of association for all," said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The court has recognised that LGBT rights advocacy is legitimate human rights work."
(Reporting by Elizia Volkmann; Editing by Rachel Savage and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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