Tunisia to revamp drug laws as prisons fill up

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Associated Press

Posted on June 26, 2014 at 7:03 AM

Updated Thursday, Jun 26 at 1:04 PM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia is revamping its draconian drug laws, which have been condemned for having minimum sentences of at least a year and not distinguishing between hard and soft drugs.

The changes are part of Tunisia's efforts to democratize after its 2011 revolution that ousted former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked a string of anti-government movements across North Africa known as the Arab Spring.

To many, Tunisia's Law 52 is a relic of 23 years of a vicious police state under Ben Ali, when police operated with impunity and used it to settle scores against opponents.

More than half the 25,000 inmates in this nation of 11 million are in prison on drug offenses. According to a 2013 U.N. report, prisons in Tunisia are overcrowded, with some facilities at 150 percent of capacity.

The revamp came after the arrest of a prominent blogger known for his activism during the revolution. No less than the interim prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, said after the May 13 arrest of blogger Aziz Amami that he was a good man, and the law was "out of sync" with daily realities. His case was later dismissed on procedural grounds, although the prosecutor has appealed.

A commission is expected to submit to parliament this summer an amended law that does away with the mandatory sentences of one-to-five years for drug possession that have filled the nation's prisons.

"This law has destroyed the lives and futures of millions of young Tunisians who, like Aziz, found themselves, at point or another, caught in the gears of the justice system," said Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Law 52 reveals the fundamental problems of the penal and judicial system in Tunisia, which does not guarantee people's rights and clogs prisons with minor offenders."

The law penalizes suspects for consumption of drugs rather than possession, so all police need to do is conduct a successful urine test for a conviction.

Najib Laabidi, a filmmaker and musician, described how he was sleeping in his room when police raided his home.

"They come to your home and take you away to do the test, even if they don't find a joint or marijuana on you," he said. He and three others were convicted and spent a year in prison.

Unlike other crimes, for which judges have leeway in sentencing, the law requires a minimum of one year behind bars, with fines of $700 to $2,100.

"In addition, this law does not distinguish between soft and hard drugs, so you get the same penalty whether consuming cocaine or marijuana," said lawyer Bassem Trifi, who has defended hundreds of drug cases.

He also lamented the lack of drug addiction treatment centers in the country, with only one still functioning.

A government survey of 15- to 17-year-olds living in the Tunis metropolitan area found that 11.6 percent had experimented with marijuana, but most estimate the rate is higher.

"The signals are flashing red, if not a dark red," said Dr. Adel Ben Mahmoud, a psychiatrist on the commission to revise the law.

He said the goal of the commission is to humanize the law without decriminalizing drug consumption.

Several political parties have expressed support for a revised law, but the conservative Islamist Ennahda party, which dominates the assembly, has not yet stated its position.

For activists, it's about taking away one of the tools that police have long used against their opponents, even after the revolution.

Amami's supporters say his arrest was not a random drug bust but was police payback for his campaigns against police brutality.

"Behind Aziz, there is the question of the youth of the revolution denouncing government abuses and demanding social justice," said Hichem ben Farhat, a member of Amami's defense team. "The police state must disappear."

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Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.

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