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HRW: Tunisia must reform 'draconian' drug laws

Drug law reformers have warned that 'Law 52' is 'destroying lives'
Protesters call for the decriminalisation of cannabis in a protest in Tunisia from 2012 (YouTube/Nawaat)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has slammed Tunisia’s “draconian” drug laws, which have resulted in drug offences accounting for 28 percent of the prison population.

The organisation’s new report condemns the controversial “Law 52,” passed under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which stipulates harsh penalties for drug use in the country.

"If you smoke a joint in Tunisia, 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," said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at HRW.

In 70 percent of convictions for drug offences the drug in question has been cannabis resin, or "zatla," the drug of choice for young Tunisians, and the stigma of being imprisoned for usage can have long-term impacts.

One user quoted by HRW said that his time in jail had effectively wrecked his life.

"When I got out, people would look at me as a criminal," he was quoted as saying. "Someone who spent time in prison is always a criminal."

A reform group called "Al Sajin 52" (Prisoner 52) have also said that Law 52 is "destroying lives".

Demonstrating outside the National Assembly in early January, one female member of the group who only gave her name as "Yamina" said that her son had been imprisoned for a year without trial on suspected drug offences before being released on the day of his hearing. She said he had been unemployed ever since because of his time behind bars.

“Whole families live in a state of horror because of this law,” she told TunisiaLive.

In December, a draft law was put before the parliament that would abolish prison time for first and second offenders, but it has yet to be put forward for debate.

"If Tunisia gets its drug law reform right, it can be a model for the region," said Guellali.

"The new draft bill tacitly acknowledges the heavy toll that the current drug law has imposed on Tunisians, especially its youth,” she said. "Parliament should take the logic to its conclusion by eliminating prison sentences altogether for drug use or possession for personal use."

However, HRW warned that a provision in the draft law that would outlaw "public incitement to commit drug-related offences" was a threat to free expression and could curtail the activities of hip-hop artists.

Drug-dealing can be a lucrative business for Tunisians, many of whom are being heavily hit by the country’s high unemployment rate, which currently stands at 15.3 percent.

According to Radhwane, a drug dealer interviewed by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a wide variety of drugs are available on the market.

“Zatla costs is five dinars for a piece you’ll use up in two spliffs, with effects lasting for seven hours,” he said.

“But a box of Artane tablets [anti-anxiety drug] for example, is priced at 3.8 dinars from the pharmacy. There are 50 tablets in a box, each with effects lasting more than eight hours, which means a box is enough to last the buyer a whole month. And if you wanted to sell them on, a single tablet would cost 1.5 dinars, so that the whole box would be worth 75 dinars – a massive profit in a very short time.”

Another dealer told IWPR that a range of people from different backgrounds made up his customer base.

“Most of my clients are teenagers,” he said. “There are also some whose families have broken down, and women who buy through intermediaries. I use school children as distributors and I pay them ten dinars for every five deliveries.”