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.