In Tunisia, thirty years in prison for having smoked cannabis
“A state crime. “ The Tunisian collective for the legalization of cannabis denounces the conviction of three young people, approaching their thirties, to thirty years in prison for having consumed cannabis by the court of Kef, in the north of the country. By this judgment of January 20, publicized on January 29, “The court applied the law to the letter”, laments Amna Guellali, director for North Africa and the Middle East of Amnesty International, referring to the particularly repressive law 52, adopted in 1992 under the Ben Ali era.
“Because his brother, Habib Ben Ali, had been involved in the vast drug trafficking known as the ‘couscous connection’, President Ben Ali waged a war on drugs, to stand out,” recalls lawyer Ghazi Mrabet, known for his fight against this law. This persists, according to him, to serve as a tool of repression against young people. “Urine tests to verify cannabis use are very common”, adds the one who, with about thirty colleagues, voluntarily assists the condemned, with a view to appealing the decision to the criminal court of Kef.
Since the 2011 revolution, calls for the revision of this law have multiplied. In 2014, the late President Béji Caïd Essebsi made it a campaign promise before being elected, worried that such a law would have “Sacrificed the future of many young Tunisians”. At the time, some 8,000 inmates were serving time in prison for cannabis use. “But conservatism had won”, deplores Ghazi Mrabet.
A first big step was taken, however, in April 2017, with a measure that was intended to be provisional before a comprehensive review of the law. “The amendment then adopted allows the judge to argue mitigating circumstances not to apply the minimum penalty of one year of detention”, specifies Amna Guellali. “ Thousands of young people have since been saved ”, rejoices Ghazi Mrabet. The lawyer now estimates at a few hundred at most the number of prisoners sentenced or in preventive detention under Law 52.
But this law still includes extremely repressive measures, to which the magistrates of Kef referred. Thus, article 7 provides for ten to twenty years’ imprisonment if a place is used for the use, circulation, storage or concealment of narcotics. And article 11 on the increase in penalties imposes the application of the maximum penalty, especially if the offense is committed in a public place, such as a mosque, hospital, public garden, café or stadium. Precisely, the three young people of Kef were smoking their joint in a stadium. “They were sentenced to thirty years, that is to say five years for consumption, five years for detention and twenty years for presence in a public place”, details the lawyer.
In a press release published on Monday 1er February, the head of government, Hichem Mechichi, considered that drug use was wrong but that the law needed to be revised because of its excessive nature. The government must support these young people because, he pleads, “The excess in the sanction will generate a counter-effect and will have harmful consequences on them”, reports the digital Tunisia site.
After ten years of fighting, Ghazi Mrabet wants to believe that this case will serve to initiate an effective process of revision of the law, and will then make it possible to obtain postponements of the judgment on appeal. Amna Guellali is more circumspect, judging the Tunisian Parliament “Paralyzed”.“There is a mobilization, she believes, but it takes place in a very tense climate of serious socio-economic crisis and police repression. “