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30 years jail for a joint? The people suffering under Tunisia’s drug laws

Protests and public pressure are amping up against Tunisia’s draconian drug laws following the recent treatment of three Tunisian men caught smoking hash

The football stadium of Kef – a town in the north-western mountains of Tunisia – has been given more attention in the last few months than at any time in its history. Up until January 29, the public facility had been neglected for years – never repainted, maintained or used for official sports competitions.

Then, a group of guys were caught smoking hash in a small space beneath the commentator stand. It became front-page national news when three of them were given a 30-year prison sentence. 20 of those years were specifically due to where the smoking took place – in this stadium, because it is a “public establishment”. Sami Bargaoui, a lawyer for the youngest of the accused, told Dazed of the case: “Everyone in Kef knows that (the judge) Madame Saida’s sentences are a bit severe.” A Tunisian Twitter user put it less mildly: “We need to ask ourselves if Tunisia hates its youth.”

The week of the judgment, the spaces filled with mattresses and empty beer cans were quickly cleaned up and the entrances were closed off with newly built brick walls. The court asked the Minister of Youth and Sports to investigate whether the stadium was in fact “apt for sport competitions”. It’s not – this was the main reason the sentence was reduced during the appeal.

On March 9, two of those sentenced – Salah and Faycel, aged 20 and 42 – were able to return home as their sentence was reduced to one year, which they had already served in pretrial detention. The third, 28-year-old Sameh, faces another year in jail.

This victory came after fierce campaigning by civil society groups, which continue to push for the legalisation of cannabis in Tunisia. Repressive drug laws carry a high cost for the country, both social and economic. Nearly 5,000 Tunisians are in jail under the notorious ‘Law 52’, most of them for smoking zatla (cannabis), according to data from 2019 sent to Dazed by Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF). This means that people serving time for cannabis-related offences account for almost a quarter of the country’s prison population. The proportion in Kef prison is even higher – over half, according to Bargaoui – due to its location near the border with Algeria, where almost all of the hash smoked in Tunisia is smuggled from. Most Law 52 sentences are similar in length to those finally received by the guys in Kef, but even the shorter jail time has socially devastating results for swathes of the country’s young population.

Khalil Hmissi, 31, was arrested along with the three that day at the stadium, but was let out on bail after four months as he told the judge that he was at the stadium to play a football match and that the traces of cannabis in his system were due to having smoked a few days earlier. In those four months, which coincided with the country going into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hmissi’s bakery – a business venture he had started six months previous – closed down because of missed rental payments. He’d already served time for cannabis possession in 2016, and this arrest took him back to square one, he told Dazed in February, while awaiting the appeal date: “This is Tunisia, this is our country. They close all doors for you, they give you nothing except when they come and take you to prison.”

When I asked the mothers of the three Kef boys what they thought about Law 52, they answered in chorus: habbs lé, habbs lé (no prison, no prison). Their words mirror those painted on banners and shouted at protests over the last few years, as a movement for the legalisation of cannabis has gained momentum in the country. The campaign has even won support among normally conservative elements of the population, as people see their children’s futures ruined by harsh sentences. “They should not get even one day,” says Zaara Abidi, one of the mothers. “By smoking, they are hurting themselves. By imprisoning them, you are hurting them more. When they come out what will they be able to do? Nothing.”

Law 52 is known among young people as ‘Ben Ali’s law’, after the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who was Tunisia’s president for 13 years until he was deposed during the Arab Spring in 2011. “For Tunisian youth, it is unthinkable that this law exists ten years after the revolution,” says Kais Ben Halima, a lawyer and president of Hizb el Warqa (The Leaf Party), which campaigns on this issue. “We live with Ben Ali via his laws, even though he is dead.”

Law 52 was created in 1992 in response to an international drug trafficking investigation, known as ‘the couscous connection’, which implicated two figures close to the regime – including Ben Ali’s own brother – in a network linking Tunisia with France. The law was passed to wash the state’s hands of the scandal, says Ben Halima. “One of the counsellors of Ben Ali had the idea to propose a severe and rigid law to show the international community that Tunisia is not implicated in this sort of thing, like, ‘Look, we have a very repressive penal culture.’”

There was no international outcry over the law’s violation of human rights as governments across the globe were taking cues from the US and its repressive ‘war on drugs’, launched in the 1970s. Across the Mediterranean in France, arrests for drug use, mostly cannabis, have increased 6,000 per cent since the 1970s. In the US, people of colour are disproportionately targeted by draconian minimum sentences for drug use – which has led to a situation where one in three Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are currently either on probation, parole or in prison. In the UK, Black people are convicted of cannabis possession at almost 12 times the rate of white people.

Penalties handed out under the law became commonly known as a “year and Vespa”, since the minimum sentence for possession of any illegal drug was one year plus a fine of 1,000 Tunisian dinars (the price of a Vespa back in the day). It also became a useful tool for Ben Ali to intimidate or eliminate his critics: after the revolution, dissidents reported hash being planted in their cars, offices and homes as a pretext for arrest. Makram Zaroui, a rapper who spoke out against the regime at a show in 2005, is still serving out a 20-year sentence for drug use and trafficking.

The law was slightly reformed in 2017 to allow judges’ discretion on sentencing. But this still leaves a lot to chance and the judge’s personal whims. “(The reform) did not help, it did not reduce the prison population,” says Lamine Benghazi of Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), which has carried out research showing that those most affected by the law are generally aged 18-25, male and either students, unemployed or working precarious jobs. “The law is still used against a very specific socio-economic category, essentially youth in working-class neighbourhoods. (The reform) hasn’t shielded (these people) from police oppression. This law is a tool used by the police to oppress youth.”

While Law 52 is no longer a tool of political oppression for the government, it is abused by the police, who have have been known to cut up small amounts of seized hash into smaller pieces to help build the argument that the person was dealing drugs, according to Bargaoui, who takes up cases across the country. “The police use this law – if (an officer) searches someone and finds a little bit of hash, it gives them power over (the person),” he explains. “He might do it for revenge, or just to be mean.”

Bassem Arfaoui, a 23-year-old hairdresser and rapper from the Djebel Lahmar district of Tunis, talks about police oppression in his music. “The police are harassing us all the time – if you have dinars, you get more dinars. If you have nothing, you get locked up,” he explains on a walk through his neighbourhood. We meet Aymen, a 22-year-old electrician, who was arrested for cannabis possession in 2015. He says police come and randomly check his ID when he is in other parts of town – like on the beach eating watermelon, or having a coffee with his girlfriend on a chic cafe terrace: “When they see your ID and that you’re from Djebel Lahmar, they ask you what you’re doing there as if I can’t leave my neighbourhood.”

The houses in Djebel Lahmar are often half-built, the top floors under construction with uncovered bricks, red like the neighbourhood’s name – which means ‘red mountain’, perhaps named for the high concentration of clay in the earth. The neighbourhood started off in the 1930s as a collection of informally built houses on the outskirts of old Tunis. In its early years, the inhabitants of Djebel Lahmar were repeatedly evicted and their houses demolished, while the French colonial state defined the urban belt of new abodes and their residents as a “security threat” to the city. Later the Tunisian government started to tolerate and even rehabilitate the areas, but, between 1978 and 2011, very little progress had been made on getting houses supplied with electricity, water and drainage.

Today, young people from the area are stigmatised, a problem that is exacerbated by Law 52. “Employers always ask for your B3 (background check), especially if you’re from Djebel Lahmar,” says Aymen, 24, who was arrested in 2015 for drug use – he was sentenced to a year and given a 1,000-dinar fine, which he has yet to pay. Since getting out of prison in 2016, he gave up on school and has been refused work in a painting factory, a leather company, as a luggage worker in the airport and as a tailor. He was told he would be considered for a job in the state water purification agency if he paid a 17,000-dinar bribe. Working odd construction jobs, Aymen has saved up 2,500 dinars – enough to pay the fine – but he is putting it aside to pay for a boat ride across the Mediterranean to migrate to Italy. “I can do nothing here, Tunis kills ambition,” he says, sat against a wall covered in a half-finished drawing of a gambler holding a bag of money. “You smoke to forget.”

In an events hall in downtown Tunis on February 26, a group of activists, lawyers and politicians sat down to talk about the way forward. The day before, it had surfaced that Morocco – which is the world’s largest producer of cannabis – was planning to legalise the cultivation of cannabis for medical use. This idea has so far not gained much support in Tunisian parliament, though the doctor that persuaded Canadian parliament to legalise cannabis was Tunisian. “We need to create a whole new law, especially with everything that is happening on an international level and the global demand for cannabis,” says  Zied Ghanney, a rare Tunisian MP in favour of legalisation, referring to the UN’s decision to remove cannabis from its list of the most dangerous drugs in December 2020. “We need to take it off Table B and look at it from all aspects – medical, agricultural, health.”

As a knee-jerk reaction to the 30-year sentence scandal, two proposals have been put forward by parties in parliament, but they are in no way radical. One idea is to soften the punishment and set up a three-strike system with progressively harsher fines. The other, which is more popular among activists, is to simply remove the prison sentence. “(The proposals) are way below our expectation because they don’t offer a holistic approach based on health and prevention,” said Benghazi. “Changing an article here and there won’t solve the problem. Drug consumers shouldn’t be dealt with by the law – we need to look at this as a health issue not a crime issue.”

Salah – the youngest of those recently allowed by the Kef court to go home – is feeling positive. Over the last year in jail, he learned how to cut hair because, he said,  “those with a long sentence need to be useful”. It is possible to earn some money or favours in this way. He’s decided to stick with it, and signed up at his local college to train for a barber qualification. As for the law, he is hopeful something will change. “I hope zatla becomes normal in Tunisia. Why not serve it with coffee like in Canada?” he tells Dazed on the phone after his release. “It could, I had 30 years and it went down to one.”