Lawmaker Faces Trial, Two Years After Sexual Harassment Allegations

Demonstrators outside the Nabeul courthouse on October 28 call for accountability in sexual harassment cases. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

On Thursday, October 28, about 20 activists representing the #EnaZeda [#MeToo] movement and the Aswat Nissa [Voices of Women] NGO gathered in front of the Nabeul Court to demonstrate in support of the first court hearing of sexual harassment allegations against Zouheir Makhlouf, a member of the now suspended Parliament.

Neither Makhlouf nor his lawyer were present, and an interim lawyer represented Maklouf in their absence. In a phone call with Meshkal on Thursday, Makhlouf said that he was absent because the date was abruptly moved earlier from November 4 to October 28, following what he claimed was executive interference in the judiciary.

The case dates back to October 2019, when Makhlouf, then a member of the Qalb Tounes party, was photographed with his pants down and cream on his hands by a 19-year-old woman who claimed he had been following her in his car.

That incident sparked the #EnaZeda movement and its related Facebook page with over 20,000 members who have been sharing testimonies of personal sexual abuse, harassment, and violence.

“Today’s trial comes as a result of a two-years struggle… It is a first small victory for us, especially that throughout all this we have seen constant stalling due to the offender’s title as an MP, even in the investigation which lasted for nine months,” Sara Medini, a policy analyst at Aswat Nisaa, told Meshkal in front of the Nabeul court house on Thursday.

Demonstrators outside the Nabeul courthouse on October 28 call for accountability in sexual harassment cases. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

This echoed what others have claimed about the delayed trial, with many accusing Makhlouf of interfering in the judicial process, causing procedural delays, and using his clout to stop the investigation.

In a statement to Meshkal, Makhlouf denied that he has interfered in the judicial process since it began two years ago or that he has ever used his privileges as a Member of Parliament to avoid prosecution and direct the case in his favor.

“From the first day I took an oath to become a Member of Parliament, I applied for a request to give up my immunity and let the judiciary do its work. I had faith in the independence of the judiciary, and I never had such intentions [of maintaining immunity],” Makhlouf told Meshkal.

However, Makhlouf said he no longer believes in the independence of the judiciary, as he believes that his case was put to use “by some parties who have ulterior motives behind it”.

President’s Decisions May Affect Judiciary

Makhlouf had initially faced charges based on a penal code article against “public exhibition of acts that go against good morals.” But when Makhlouf appealed the charges, the indictment division at the Ministry of Justice assessed them and decided the charges instead should be sexual harassment.

Makhlouf is now facing trial for criminal charges based on Law 58 from 2017, a law that updated old laws and added new provisions relating to violence against women. That law updated article 226 of the the penal code so that those found guilty of sexual harassment face two years in prison and a fine of 5000 dinars. The punishment is doubled in certain cases, the most relevant in Makhlouf’s case being if “the perpetrator has authority over the victim or abuses the authority conferred on him by his duties.”

Makhlouf did not face a court hearing until after President Kais Saied stripped Members of Parliament of their legal immunity as part of his July 25 decisions, when he also froze Parliament and seized more executive powers. Since then, the case has moved forward, with Makhlouf criticizing what he sees as executive interference in the judiciary.

“The initial date was November 4, and all of a sudden it was brought forward to October 28,” Makhlouf said, adding that he believes that the change of the trial’s date came in response to the executive’s interference, claiming that President Kais Saied was referring to his case  when he spoke at a council of ministers meeting on the same day of the trial.

In that ministerial meeting that Saied chaired on October 28, posted on the Presidency’s Facebook page, Saied said: “I call on judges to apply the law regardless of people’s titles or those who are trying to hide behind their immunity.”

Makhlouf said he was only told the trial was being brought forward three days prior and he had no time to prepare his lawyers or find someone else to look after his mother who required medical assistance.

In a Facebook post on October 27, Makhlouf denied an alleged rumor stating that he had already been sentenced to one year in prison and called the victim’s supporters “professional liars”.

“They have started the process of inciting against innocent people and demonizing them, intimidating the judges and preparing a public opinion based on Facebook trials, in a way to influence the judiciary and harass it,” part of the post read.

Demonstrators Call for Accountability, Stop Blaming Victims

In Nabeul, supporters of the victim, who came from Tunis, wore “The Sexual Harasser Does Not Legislate” shirts and blew whistles and beat drums as they walked towards the court in Nabeul. In front of the court house, they raised slogans denouncing sexual assault and impunity, and held banners that read: “We will not keep silent on sexual assaulters”, “Apply, Apply, Apply the law”, “Down with rape culture… Do not blame the victim”, “No to impunity”.

Demonstrators outside the Nabeul courthouse on October 28 call for accountability in sexual harassment cases. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

“We’re not demanding too much, there’s a law [law 58] that needs to be applied and followed,” Medini of Aswat Nissa added.

Present among the crowd was 20 year-old, Eya, friend of the victim and colleague at law school. Eya came all the way from Tunis to stand with her friend and said many more were planning to be present, but unfortunately the distance and time of the trial came as a hindrance.

Eya told Meshkal that her friend suffered a lot from media slander and attacks at the beginning of this case, but that support from family and friends has kept her going.

“They kept saying that…she was the one who provoked him and he is innocent…But despite all this she is strong and determined to not keep silent and get her justice,” Eya said.

By midday, journalists present at the courthouse were informed that the hearing was adjourned to November 11, after a request was made by Makhlouf’s interim lawyer. Although Makhlouf and his lawyer were not present, the victim in the case was there with her lawyer since the early morning.

Demonstrators outside the Nabeul courthouse on October 28 call for accountability in sexual harassment cases. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

“The trial was postponed… it has already taken too much time and we hope that it will not be stalled any longer” Naïma Chabbouh, the victim’s lawyer, told different media outlets present outside of the Nabeul Court of First Instance.

On October 16, #EnaZeda, the Tunisian version of the international #MeToo movement, celebrated its second-year anniversary. Since the emergence of the movement in Tunisia, The Ena Zeda Facebook page has served as a platform where thousands of sexual harassment, assault and rape victims, could share their testimonies and speak up for the first time about their difficult experiences. Today, the page has 5 million monthly readers and continues to grow in size.

“Ena Zeda represents a glimmer of hope for women who were assaulted and were unable to speak. With Ena Zeda, they were able to speak and expose their aggressors… Ena Zeda is not something temporary, it is a movement of a whole nation,” Medini of Aswat Nissa told Meshkal.