TUNIS, Tunisia — In late 2011, Hesham a 24-year-old Tunisian cab driver, was sitting in a café with friends in Ariana, a working class neighborhood in northern Tunis. A fight broke out over something petty — the details of which Hesham said he can’t even remember — and the police came to break up the brawl. They hauled all the young men to police headquarters.
“I knew I was in trouble,” said Hesham, who declined to give his last name.
In Tunisia, police routinely force prisoners to take a drug test. If the test returns positive, Law 52, the anti-drug statute that does not distinguish between hard drugs and soft drugs, mandates a one-year minimum sentence and $600 fine. The punishment is known locally as “a year plus a Vespa,” which costs about the same amount.
But police often use the law, which dates back to the former dictatorship under ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as a catch-all to round up known activists. And now the government said it plans to amend the legislation this summer, as part of the country’s effort to rebuild following the 2011 revolution that overthrew the former dictator and sparked the Arab Spring.
The decision came after the May 13 arrest and later release of Azyz Amami, an anti-police brutality activist and internationally known leader of the 2011 revolution. He was charged under Law 52.
His ordeal is common in Tunisia where about half of the country’s 25,000 prisoners are detained on drug charges. Even visiting a house or apartment known to contain illegal drugs earns the minimum sentence.
Hesham, like many Tunisians, occasionally smokes zalta, or hash. After being arrested for the fight, he tested positive for THC while in police custody and was sent to prison. He spent the next 12 months locked up.
“It’s nearly ruined my life,” he said. “I’m in debt and I lost a whole year of work.”
Though Hesham is now back to work, he hasn’t been able to finish paying off friends who helped pay the fine, and said he lives in constant fear of the police.
The director of Tunisia’s Human Rights Watch office, Amna Guellali, said the fact that Law 52 remains on the books is evidence of the “total absence of legal reform after the revolution.”
The practice is also putting a major strain on Tunisia’s criminal justice system, with some prisons at over 150 percent capacity.
Experts and activists agree that Law 52 mostly affects men like Hesham, working class or poor Tunisians without the resources to hire lawyers or bribe their way out of prison.
“I’m sure if my father knew someone, or if I were famous activist, I would have found a way to avoid the full sentence,” he said with visible anger. “Unfortunately, nobody knows me.”
But over the last few months, the arrest of prominent Tunisian activists and musicians on drug charges launched a public debate over Law 52 and the law is becoming increasingly unpopular among Tunisians of all political stripes.
Last September, police arrested a group of prominent Tunisian youth-leaders at a party in downtown Tunis, including the filmmaker Abdullah Yahya and the union organizer Nejib Abidi.
In response to these high-profile arrests, a group of activists launched AlSejin52 (which means ‘prisoner 52’ in Arabic), a coalition devoted to the reform of Tunisia’s drug-statute. Leaders of AlSejin52 wrote in an open letter to the Tunisian government that Law 52 “ruins lives,” and they demanded immediate reform. The activists also organized protests to push for Amami’s release, and he was eventually let go on May 23, when it became clear that police beat him in custody.
AlSejin52 leaders argue that Law 52 not only devastates the lives of working class Tunisians, but that is also gives police a blank check to intimidate and target critics of police violence.
“We believe that Law52 is one of, if not the biggest threat to Tunisians’ human rights that we face right now,” said Balkisss Chograni a spokeswoman for the group. “It’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t know someone in prison under the law, and we know from personal experience that activists are especially vulnerable.”
The flurry of arrests and the high-profile activism of AlSejin52 managed to draw the attention of Tunisia’s political leaders. Following Amami’s arrest in May interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa declared the law “no longer in tune with the times.” Health ministry director general Nabil Ben Salah said the government is working to “humanize” the law, but made clear that drug legalization was not a real option.
Chograni is not optimistic about the prospects for repealing Law 52 anytime soon.
“It’s all pandering before November’s elections,” she said, adding that she worries that the powerful police officers union, which has come out against changing the law, will thwart any real reform. But the law’s critics maintain that as long as it stays on the books, the Tunisian criminal justice system will remain dysfunctional.
“Changing Law 52 must be at the heart of any criminal justice reform in Tunisia,” said Guellali.
In the meantime, activists and everyday Tunisians still live in fear of lengthy sentences for minor drug crimes.