(Tunis) – Tunisia’s parliament should amend the draft drug law currently before it to strengthen its human rights provisions, Human Rights Watch, Avocats sans Frontières, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights said today in a joint letter to parliament.

Parliament should eliminate all prison sentences for recreational drug use or possession. It should also eliminate the draconian punishment proposed for refusing to take the urine test for drug consumption. It should eliminate the new offense of “incitement” to use drugs, which could be used against groups that advocate for the decriminalization of drugs, and rappers and singers who address drug use, among others.

A general view of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis, Tunisia, May 2016.

© 2016 Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

“Tunisia’s existing draconian drug law has had a disastrous toll on the lives of thousands of citizens,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “This repressive policy has no place in a more rights-conscious Tunisia.”

The government approved and sent to parliament on December 30, 2015, a draft revision to the 1992 law No. 92-52 on narcotics (“Law 52”). The parliamentary commission on general legislation began discussing the draft on January 3, 2017. On January 12, the Justice Ministry introduced a modified version of the bill that reverses some of the potential improvements in the initial draft.

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.

The initial draft law abolished prison terms for first-time and second-time offenders in all cases of possession for personal use. It would grant judges the discretion to impose alternative punishments for repeat offenders and places greater emphasis on treatment services. The draft submitted on January 12 reintroduced prison sentences for first- and second-time offenders.

Human Rights Watch and Avocats sans Frontières have each published reports showing how the enforcement of Law 52 has led to various human rights violations. In “‘All This for a Joint’: Tunisia’s Repressive Drug Law and a Roadmap for Its Reform,” Human Rights Watch interviewed people who described beatings and insults during arrest and interrogation, mistreatment during urine tests, and searches of their homes without judicial warrants. Once convicted, a person whose only “crime” is to have smoked a joint would find themselves locked up with hardened criminals in overcrowded cells. After prison, they are burdened by their criminal record when facing an already tough job market.

In its report “The Application of Law 52 by the Tunisian Courts,”Avocats sans Frontières, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, and the Tunisian Bar Association documented violations of the right to due process during trials.

According to a statement by the justice minister before parliament’s Committee on General Legislation on January 3, Tunisia had 6,700 people in prison for drug consumption in 2016, out of a total of 23,553 prisoners.

The revised draft contains provisions that may violate the rights to free expression and privacy. In addition to adding the “public incitement” offense, the draft gives the police expanded powers to conduct surveillance, tap phones, and intercept communications during anti-drug operations, all measures that could considerably interfere with the right to privacy.

The draft states that a person who refuses to undergo the [urine] test can be sentenced to one year in prison and/or fined up to 5,000 dinars (US$2,430). In the past, the urine test has been associated with police abuse, including ordering people arbitrarily to undergo the test and physically abusing them before or while they take the test.

“Parliament should introduce a human-rights-based approach, by repealing criminal sanctions for drug consumption, and removing prison sentences for refusal to take urine test,” said Antonio Manganella, Tunisia director for Avocats sans Frontières.