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Tunisian government moves to shutter LGBTQ group, advocate says

Association Shams, Tunisia's LGBTQ rights group, won the right to operate in 2016, but this week government filed an appeal of that court decision.

The Tunisian government is attempting to disband one of the country's few, and arguably its most prominent, LGBTQ rights groups, according to the group's leader.

Mounir Baatour, president of Association Shams, said the government filed this week an appeal seeking to overturn a 2016 court decision that permitted the association to continue operating in the North African country.

"It's very said news," Baatour told NBC News on Friday. However, he added "Shams will not die."

He explained that Association Shams received initial approval to operate from the government in May 2015, and that approval was subsequently upheld by a 2016 court case that challenged the group's legality according to Tunisia's Law on Associations, which governs the creation of non-governmental organizations in the country.

Baatour, who indicated this move to disband his organization came as a surprise, said Association Shams has "saved hundreds of young gay lives." He noted, however, that as of 2018, there were still 147 people in prison in Tunisia for homosexuality-related charges.

Neela Ghoshal, a senior LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the government's attempts to disband Association Shams "a very negative sign."

"There's no way by which Shams, in advocating for basic rights for LGBT people, violates the Law on Associations," she told NBC News.

Ghoshal said she and other activists thought Tunisia was "moving in the right direction on these issues," for instance by ordering state officers to stop the practice of administering forced anal exams to "determine homosexuality." That still happens, Ghoshal said, but "some of them seemed like they were taking place because of ignorant police officers, but this is clearly a very outright attack."

Just last year, a government panel reassessed Tunisia's penal code in order to better protect human rights and individual freedom. The decriminalization of homosexuality was one of several progressive changes recommended to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebi by the country’s Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (also known by the acronym COLIBE), which was a presidential commission comprised of legislators, professors and human rights advocates.

In its final report, the committee also recommended abolishing the death penalty, giving women more rights and dismantling patrilineal citizenship and inheritance.

“Some laws pose an assault on the sanctity of individuals’ privacy, including their sexual relations,” the report, published last year, stated. The report specifically cited article 230 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes same-sex sexual activity.

Baatour, who believes the attempt to shutter Association Shams is politically motivated, said it's not a coincidence that the move comes during an election year. He noted that Nidaa Tounes, the centrist party of President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, is projected in polls to lose seats to its rival, Ennahda, an Islamist party connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It goes without saying that we will defend ourselves, legally, in order to say the only truth that is worth it: citizen equality," Baatour said.

The Tunisian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.