New law to reduce prison terms for drug offenders in Tunisia
Tunis - Tunisia is considering revamping its draconian anti-drug law in response to criticism by influential liberal groups.
Current legislation has been blamed for overcrowding of Tunisian prisons with young people sentenced to jail terms for the use of soft drugs, especially a cannabis derivative known as zatla.
The law provdies for imprisonment of up to five years for possession or consumption of illicit drugs. Testing for illegal or banned drugs is mandatory upon arrest. The law leaves almost no leeway for judges; evidence of consumption means a minimum penalty of one year in jail.
Many politicians pledged, prior to the 2014 elections, to change the country’s laws to limit prison sentences for soft-drug convictions.
Rappers, other artists and prominent bloggers have been jailed under the so-called “52 Law” since 2011. Liberal activists — some of them who claim consumption of soft drugs is a statement of freedom — have described the law as a repressive legacy of the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who led Tunisia from 1987-2011.
About 25,000 people — 229 inmates per 100,000 Tunisians — are imprisoned in Tunisia. The highest proportion among them were convicted of drug offences, according to the Tunisian Justice Ministry and UN figures.
“The 52 Law is based on the notion that harsh penalties deter people from using drugs but it is only destroying lives instead of dealing with the deep roots of the problem,” said the activist group al-Sajin 52 (Prison Inmate 52).
A proposed law would allow a first-time drug offender to avoid prosecution if the accused seeks treatment at a rehab facility. Otherwise the person would be fined 2,000 dinars ($1,000). A repeat drug offender would be fined up to 5,000 dinars while a third-time offender would face a jail term of up to one year and a fine of 2,000 dinars.
The Justice Ministry said the draft law adopts a gradual approach and the principle of prevention before punishment to deal with drug addiction.
The new legislation remains tough for drugs dealers and smugglers as well as drug plant growers, who could be sentenced to prison terms of 20 years to life on top of hefty fines.
Current legislation does not distinguish between soft and hard drug use. It punishes with up to one year in jail any suspected offender who refuses a police order for medical testing.
Advocates of a more lenient punishment for drug offences argue that revamping the law could reduce overcrowding of prisons by 50%. The new law would apply to charges pending against an estimated 2,000 people awaiting trial.
Others raise questions about the impact the revision of the law could have on consumption of drugs in the country.
Tunisia’s population has grown during the past ten years at a rate of 1%. People aged between 10 and 24 years old represent 30% of its population of 11 million, according to government data.
Two-thirds of the population live on the coast, accounting for the bulk of the country’s urbanisation where most districts lack functioning sport and culture facilities for young people.
Young Tunisians bear the brunt of the country’s social and economic crisis.
The national labour force increases by 88,000 people a year, swelling the lines of the estimated 500,000 people already unemployed. Joblessness overall was reported at more than 15% nationwide in 2015; for people aged 15 to 24, the figure is 30.7%.
“Drug addiction is a result of marginalisation problems,” said Wala Kasmi from the Youth Decides non-governmental organisation.
Tunisia is sandwiched between Algeria and Libya where smugglers move cannabis resin from drug-growing areas of Morocco as well as pills from sub-Saharan Sahel areas where drug barons from South American countries operate clandestine laboratories to move their products nearer to rich markets in Europe.
Drug use is rising sharply in Tunisia, particularly among young people, with zatla being the drug of popular choice. Research by the Tunisian Association for the Prevention of Drug Addiction (ATUPRET) shows that nearly half of school students between 15 and 17 years old have tried drugs.
According to ATUPRET, the increase in the easy availability of drugs is caused by a rise in smuggling across porous desert borders. Jihadists are suspected of being in collusion with drug smugglers to finance terrorist activities.
Civic associations put the number of people addicted to drugs at around 140,000, including some using cocaine or amphetamines.
They argue the prevalence of cannabis abuse is due to prices as most addicted are from poor or lower-middle-class families. No official figures were available on the breakdown of drugs users according to the types of narcotics.
The Justice Ministry did not say when the draft law would be debated by parliament where a majority of lawmakers are expected to back the proposal, parliament sources said.