The arrest of the blogger and human rights defender, Azyz Amam, along with the photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka, on the night of May 12, 2014, in Goulette on the northern outskirts of Tunis, on allegations of possession of cannabis, has provoked indignation in Tunisia.
Aziz is regarded as one of the key figures of the Tunisian revolution. Arrested by the police on January 6, 2011 for his activism in social networks, Aziz had been released only on the 13th, the eve of the downfall of Ben Ali. Although Azyz denies having been in possession of drugs, says that it was a police trap, and that his lawyers had shown marks of blows and wounds on his face, the prosecutor, on May 15th, ordered his remand in custody. His case is scheduled for May 23rd.
More than a symbol, Azyz is only the umpteenth victim of the implementation of the 1992 drug law 52, that has crushed the lives and the futures of thousands of young Tunisians such as himself, who, at one moment or another, found themselves caught in the wheels of the police machine.
Abusive practices, humiliating methods
I was part of a Human Rights Watch delegation that, thanks to an agreement with the Interior Minister, in February and September 2013 visited four police detention centers in several cities in the country--Bouchoucha in Tunis, Nabeul, Kairouan and Sfax.
The testimonies that we were able to collect had shown us the scope of the detention on suspicion of cannabis consumption, the abusive practices that accompany police raids in working class areas in search of the smallest trace of this drug, as well as the humiliating methods, such as forced urine tests, used by the police to prove its consumption. The majority of those whom we met who had been detained for this crime were youth, some fifteen years old, still pupils or students. Once arrested, there were very few ways out. Since they receive a minimum of a year in prison if their test is positive, the script of their conviction is often written in advance.
In fact, other than in cases authorized by it, Law 52 on drug-related offenses provides for the imprisonment for one to five years and a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 dinars for any user or possessor for personal use of drug plants or materials. The law forbids the application by the judge of mitigating circumstances. This provision prevents the users of drugs from benefiting, such as with all other crimes and offenses, from Article 53 of the penal code, that permits the judge, "when the circumstances of the act prosecuted appear of a nature to justify the mitigation of the penalty [....] to reduce the penalty below the legal minimum.”
Another aberration of Law 52: it is not the possession of the drug that is prohibited but "the use." This opens the door to a series of other abuses: an individual taken into custody, for example, for an argument in a café or for any other reason may be subjected to a urine test to check if he has used the drug. This test may, in itself, violate privacy and the right to privacy of the individual. A detainee can, certainly, refuse the test, but such persons often find themselves behind closed doors with the police, without the presence of a lawyer during the first three to six days of the arrest.
Often, the accused accept the test without asking too many questions.
Once in prison, it is another ordeal that begins. In its last report on Tunisia, the Office of The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights cited the significant level of over occupancy in Tunisian prisons, up to 150% above facility capacity. According to the official numbers of the prison service, more than a third of the prison population in Tunisia is detained for drugs, the overwhelming majority for use, say the authorities.
Thus, the student arrested for smoking a joint finds himself thrown into a closed world, mixed in with those imprisoned for much more serious crimes- with all of the risks that this unhealthy crowding can lead to.
Human Rights Watch has long documented the human rights violations that accompany the criminalization of drug use. Throughout the world, we have denounced the devastation, individual and collective, that results from this "war on drugs". It is accompanied, often, by racial or social discrimination, affecting, as in the United States, the most disadvantaged populations. The fear of imprisonment, rather than having a dissuasive effect on individuals, drives them underground and, as we discovered in several countries, notably in Russia and in Canada, prevents them from having access to health services. We saw how, in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, rehabilitation centers for drug users frequently transformed into centers of torture and forced labor.
All of that led us to believe that prison sentences could not, in any situation, constitute a response appropriate for addressing this phenomenon.
The foreign example
Internationally, a tendency has begun to emerge to change states’ policies in the war against drugs while they seek other alternatives for protecting society and individuals from their harmful effects. In Brazil, for example, a 2006 law distinguishes between traffickers and users of drugs and provides for them alternative penalties.
In 2009, the Supreme Court of Argentina decided that imprisonment for personal use of cannabis was not constitutional. In 2009, Mexican authorities adopted a law providing that individuals found in possession of a certain quantity of drugs, established by the law, would no more face criminal prosecution. Similarly, Spain, Portugal, and Italy no longer consider the possession of cannabis, for personal use and in limited quantities, to be a crime punishable by law.
For the sole crime of having smoked a joint
For three years, Tunisia and its partners have been examining reforms encompassing the security forces, the judicial system, as well as the renovation and upgrading, according to international standards, of detention centers and prisons.
The revision of Law 52 should be at the heart of these considerations on reforms. It causes human tragedies, throwing into prison thousands of youth whose only crime is having smoked, even occasionally, a joint. Law 52 gives to the security forces the perfect opportunity to repress youth, often from working class areas, who are idle and rebellious. Law 52 contributes to the alarming prison overcrowding. Rather than fighting crime, law 52, in leading young users to go to criminal areas, only increases it.
Calls for its revision have been growing for months. "Sajin 52" (Prisoner 52), a citizen initiative requesting the authorities to replace prison sentences with other sanctions, was launched.
Similarly, following the arrest of Azyz Amami, several political parties have expressed their wish to change this law. It is necessary now that these calls do not remain words but that they open out onto true reform that spares these youth from being doubly penalized by these unjust laws.
Amma Guellali is Director of the Human Rights Watch office for Tunisia and Algeria.