The 33-page report, “‘All This for a Joint’: Tunisia’s Repressive Drug Law and a Roadmap for Its Reform,” documents the human rights abuses and social toll that stem from enforcement of the country’s draconian drug law, which sends thousands of Tunisians to prison each year merely for consuming or possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal use. The government approved and sent to parliament on December 30, 2015, a draft revision to the drug law. Parliament has yet to announce the schedule for its debate and vote on the draft.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “If Tunisia gets its drug law reform right, it can be a model for the region.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 people who have served prison terms under the drug law, including young residents of working-class neighborhoods in various cities, students, artists, and bloggers. It has also interviewed state officials and lawyers who defended people prosecuted under the drug law, and reviewed 20 case files in drug cases, including police reports and court decisions.
Adopted in 1992, Law No. 92-52 on narcotics (“Law 52”) imposes a minimum mandatory sentence of a year in prison for anyone who uses or possesses even a small quantity of an illegal drug, including cannabis. Repeat offenders face a minimum sentence of five years. Even in cases involving possession of a single joint, judges lack authority to impose alternatives to incarceration, such as community-based sanctions or other administrative penalties.
As of December 15, 2015, 7,451 people convicted of drug related offenses were in Tunisia’s prisons – 7,306 men and 145 women – according to the Justice Ministry’s General Administration of Prisons and Rehabilitation. About 70 percent of them – about 5,200 people – were convicted of using or possessing cannabis, called “zatla” in Tunisia. People convicted of drug offenses constitute 28 percent of the total state prison population.
S.T., 28, said that after spending five months in prison in 2014 for using cannabis before being pardoned, he felt “broken.” “When I got out, people would look at me as a criminal,” he said. “Someone who spent time in prison is always a criminal.”
Human Rights Watch documented how enforcement of the drug law has resulted in serious human rights violations. The people interviewed described beatings and insults during arrest and interrogation, mistreatment during urine tests, and searches of homes without judicial warrants. The low standard of suspicion required under the law before the police place a person under arrest gives the police discretion to hold people in custody without a strong basis and then often effectively coerce them take urine tests to see what the tests reveal.
Once convicted, a person whose only “crime” is to have smoked a joint would find himself or herself locked up with hardened criminals under poor conditions in a cell so crowded that inmates have to sleep in shifts, or on the floor or two to a mattress. After prison, they are burdened by their criminal record when facing an already tough job market.
The draft law abolishes prison terms for first-time and second-time offenders in all cases of possession for personal use and mandatory prison terms for repeat offenders. It also grants judges the discretion to impose alternative punishments and places greater emphasis on treatment services.
But the draft law contains provisions that may violate the right to free expression and of privacy. It creates a new offense of “public incitement to commit drug-related offenses.” This provision, as written, could be used to prosecute members of groups that advocate decriminalization of drugs, as well as rappers and singers who sing about drugs, organizations that provide services to reduce drug-related harm, and others who express themselves peacefully about drugs.
In addition, by maintaining the option of prison sentences of up to one year for repeat use and possession of illegal drugs, the bill ignores calls from international experts on human rights and health urging countries to eliminate custodial sentences for drug use and possession. Governments have a legitimate interest in preventing societal harm caused by drugs. However, criminalizing personal drug use interferes with a person’s right to privacy.
“The new draft bill tacitly acknowledges the heavy toll that the current drug law has imposed on Tunisians, especially its youth,” Guellali said. “Parliament should take the logic to its conclusion by eliminating prison sentences altogether for drug use or possession for personal use.”