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Blogger's arrest reveals remaining flaws of Tunisian justice system

The arrest of blogger Azyz Amami and photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka for the possession and use of marijuana in accordance with Tunisia’s notorious Law 52, a legacy of former President Ben Ali, has sparked debate about the law’s judicial practice.

On the evening of May 12, blogger Azyz Amami and photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka were pulled over and detained in La Galouette, a northern seaside suburb to Tunis, for the possession and use of marijuana. A couple of days later the court of First Instance formally charged Amami and Ben Mlouka with legal basis in the Tunisian Law 52/1992.

Cyber activist Amamy is widely associated with the 2011 uprising and has become a symbol of the revolution. He is famous for his political activism, which caused him prison during former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. Nevertheless, Amamy has continued to raise his voice against his country’s injustices and recently established the campaign “I too burned a police station,” in defence of protestors charged for actions committed during the revolution.

“Azyz’s arrest was not a surprise,” human rights activist Lina Ben Mhenni explains and adds, “For more than two weeks he has been telling me that he was expecting an arrest because of his activities and statements in media.” A few days prior to the blogger’s arrest Amamy attended a Tunisian talk show where he openly criticized the police and denounced the country’s youth arrests. The blogger’s continuous criticism of law 52 led to the establishment of Al Sajin 52 (Prisoner 52), an initiative advocating for the amendment of the law in order to “save the country’s future generations.” The law, they argue, is destroying young people’s lives and overcrowding Tunisian prisons.

According to Tunisia’s Law 52/1992 a citizen found in possession of, or having consumed, narcotics may be sentenced to one to five years in prison and fined up to 3.000 Dinars. In addition, article 8, gives between six months to three years of detention to people present when drugs are being used.

Despite Al Sajin 52’s advocacy for the article’s amendment the group explicitly rejects that they are supporting the consumption of narcotics. According to the group’s objectives they “are convinced that the one year prison sentence or more does not, in a large number of cases, motivate for withdrawal.” Instead the group’s intentions include seeking a deeper understanding on the consumption of marijuana in the Tunisian society.

“Prisons are now full of young people who have lost their future and hopes because of this law,” says Ben Mhenni. An estimated 8.000 of approximately 25.000 prisoners are convicted under the law. Figures by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights suggest that 53% of Tunisia’s detainees are jailed for crimes related to narcotics and 66% of the prisoners are between 19 and 49 years old.

Many of the law’s critics suggest that the law is a way to silence Tunisia’s outspoken youth. “I think that the arrest is related to Azyz’s activism and fights. It has nothing to do with the drugs story they are trying to disseminate,” argues Ben Mhenni. Marijuana is instead considered a pretext for politically motivated arrests. “The use of the law 52 with an underlying political motive is not a novelty. Under the regime of Ben Ali this form of abuse was very common,” Ben Mhenni says and adds, “Let me say that they are back to old practices.”

Other activists convicted under the law include Yahya Dridi, Abdallah Yahya, Slim Abida and Mahmoud Ayad and a couple of months ago rapper Ahmed Laabidi, better known as, Kafon, behind the popular song Houmani, was released after nine months in prison for marijuana charges. “Tens of thousands of citizens and particularly youth were convicted since 1992,” the rapper’s lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, said in a statement on Facebook. “It is time to end hypocrisy. It is time to shake up boundaries. Let’s strongly urge amendment of law 52.”

The arrests of Azyz and Sabri have caused an outcry among human rights activists and supporters have called for their immediate release. Demonstrations have been staged in the country’s capital Tunis and social media has burst with FreeAzyz and FreeSabri hash tags.

A number of politicians have also expressed concern over the law and support an amendment, including Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. “Law 52 is outdated and we are going to amend it to respond to our reality,” the minister said in an official statement shortly after the blogger’s arrest.

Other Tunisian politicians consider drug usage a threat to society and are reluctant to any amendments to the law. Politician Hechmi Hamdi has called on a “state of emergency” in the fight against cannabis and Nabil Ben Salah, the Health Ministry’s Director General, has assured that the Health and Justice ministries will seek to humanize the legalization, but made clear that decriminalization is not under consideration.

Ben Mhenni is cautiously optimistic about Jomaa’s statement but points out that even if the statement is sincere, an amendment will take time. However, “In the long run if the law would be changed this would be a positive development.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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