As the Tunisian parliament considers a legislative revision to the country’s notoriously strict drug law, human rights organisations are urging lawmakers to reduce penalties.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Avocats sans Frontières, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights sent a joint letter to the Tunisian parliament calling for an end to imprisonment as a punishment for “recreational” drug use and possession.
The letter was sent as a response to the legislature’s ongoing reconsideration of Tunisia’s primary piece of drug legislation, Law 52, which has been described as “draconian” and responsible for “a disastrous toll on the lives of thousands of citizens” by Tunisia’s HRW director, Amna Guellali.
Law 52 stipulates that the use or possession of any quantity of any illegal drug must be punished with a mandatory minimum sentence of one year imprisonment.
“If you smoke a joint in Tunisia”, Guellali describes, “you risk getting arrested, beaten up by the police, sent for a urine test, and then sentenced to a year in an overcrowded prison with hardened criminals as your cellmates”.
Indeed, the law allows police to obtain a urine sample for drug testing from any detained person – even if they weren’t arrested for a drug offence. A 2016 HRW report describes how “someone taken into custody, for example for an argument in a café or for any other reason, may be ordered to undergo a urine test”.
Refusal to provide a urine sample can be punished by up to a year in prison.
Tunisian lawmakers are currently debating a draft revision to Law 52 that would relax some of these harsh measures.
Proposed revisions include abolishing mandatory incarceration for first and second-time personal possession offences, and allowing judges to have discretion when they sentence people for repeat offences.
However, while including steps towards reducing punitive measures for drug offences, drafted revisions would also create a new offence: “public incitement to commit drug related offences”.
Guellali says this revision, if implemented, “could be used against rappers, social workers, and even Human Rights Watch itself, which advocates for the decriminalisation of drug use".
Despite this, Guellali suggests, proposed revisions would have a positive impact on those most affected by Law 52: “people in disenfranchised neighbourhoods where drug use is high because of high unemployment”.
Law 52 was introduced in 1992 by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the now-deposed president of Tunisia who ruled from 1987 until 2011.
The founder of Fanni Raghman Anni, a Tunisian Human Rights youth group, described Law 52 as “a political law used by Ben Ali … to crack down on political opponents and keep silent those who [dared to] speak against his corruption and system”.
The law has led to the imprisonment of thousands of people for non-violent offences. In December 2015, 7,451 people were in prison in Tunisia for drug offences, of which around 70 per cent were incarcerated for cannabis use or possession.
A spokesperson for activist group al-Sajin 52 (Prison Inmate 52) describes the law as being ”based on the notion that harsh penalties deter people from using drugs, but it is only destroying lives instead of dealing with the deep roots of the problem”.
Despite fear of the proposed incitement offence, human rights activists remain confident that the draft revision – if passed – will reduce the harms that Law 52 causes to people who use drugs.