By Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, Jan 9 (Openly) - A former presidential candidate and leader of Tunisia's largest LGBT+ rights group said he has been forced to flee to France after "very serious" death threats from Islamist elements within the conservative north African country.
Mounir Baatour, who stood in September's presidential poll on behalf of the small Tunisian Liberal Party, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that local authorities had informed him that "the Islamists want to kill me".
"The police contacted me and said they considered the threat as very serious," he said by phone from France where has been accepted as a political refugee.
The Tunisian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Baatour's status as the only openly gay presidential candidate brought him into the limelight in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, where gay sex is punishable by up to three years in jail.
Laws governing "attacks on morals" are often used to clamp down on same-sex intimacy, with 127 convictions in 2018 - up 61% on the previous year, according to Tunisia's leading LGBT+ right group Shams, led by Baatour.
Tunisia adopted democracy after a 2011 revolution sparked the Arab Spring uprisings and saw the ouster of secular autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years.
Kais Saied, a retired law professor, won a landslide victory to become president in October while the moderate Islamist Ennahda party came first in parliament.
It was not clear which group threatened Baatour but dozens of people were killed in Islamist assaults on a beach hotel and museum in 2015, and Tunisian fighters have crossed the border from Libya to launch attacks.
Baatour, who will continue to head Shams from France, said he had no regrets about any actions that might have led to the death threats.
"It's my personality, my identity," said Baatour, adding that he plans to look for work as a lawyer in France as there was no immediate prospect of being able to return home.
"I will continue to fight for the rights (of LGBT+ people in Tunisia)."
A recent survey by Arab Barometer research network found only 7% of Tunisians consider homosexuality acceptable.
Many regard LGBT+ people as "sick", said Baatour.
"But I say to them, if homosexuality is a sickness then find us a medicine for that, and then I will bring you the Nobel Prize for medicine," he said.
(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh; Editing by 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)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.