In a TV studio set amid farm fields in Tunisia this March, politicians, grassroots activists, NGO workers and judicial officials sat in a semicircle on brightly-lit platforms hotly debating the reform or abolition of a national anti-drug law. The debate was broadcasted live throughout Tunisia and beyond.
One of those on the panel was Faycel Jebali, 42, from the city of Kef, deep in the mountainous interior of Tunisia. The interior is profoundly marginalized, abandoned by coastal business, and lacking infrastructure and employment. Jebali, along with two others, was arrested in Kef in February 2020 for cannabis use at the city’s football stadium and spent over a year in jail.
He was arrested under Law 52. Since its introduction in 1992, Law 52 has been used to mete out extreme sentences to thousands of young Tunisians for any kind of drug use or possession. It has largely targeted young men from poor neighbourhoods as well as activists, critical artists, and progressive public figures.
Some scholars, rights groups and activists claim that Law 52 is not just some out-of-place holdover from the pre-Arab Spring dictatorship days, but a tool of Tunisia's security state deliberately used to quell dissent. And after Tunisia’s president Kais Saied suddenly dismissed the country’s prime minister and froze parliament on the 25th of July, which he justified as a way out of Tunisia’s prolonged economic and COVID-19 crises, and decided early this week that he could set laws by decree, there is potential that this could compound the effects of Law 52.
In response to the current, duelling protests broke out in Tunisia’s capital Tunis on Saturday, where opponents of Saied’s extraordinary measures denounced what they saw as a coup. On the other side of a police cordon, the president’s supporters chanted in support of his measures and criticised the Islamist opposition party Ennahdha.
Law 52 requires a minimum mandatory sentence of one year in prison for any person found guilty of use and possession of an illegal drug. This includes drugs like cannabis. The law imposes a minimum sentence of five years in prison on repeat offenders. For use and possession judges cannot reduce the sentence in light of mitigating circumstances. Over the years, roughly one percent of the entire population of Tunisia – some 120,000 people – have been jailed as a result of Law 52.
Jebali described his arrest and what followed: “At the stadium, the police grabbed me and two others. They said we were selling cannabis to children,” he told VICE World News. “They insulted us, calling our mothers names. They brought us to the police station where we were beaten and interrogated for three days.”
He and his friends were incarcerated without trial until January of this year, when they were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Then, with massive protests around Tunisia decrying Jebali’s sentence, among other issues, he was released in March.
Even after his release, said Jebali, he’s still out of a job and thinks he’s been blacklisted.
“Now they won’t even let me work,” he said angrily.
As of 2018, Tunisia had a prison population of some 25,000 people, according to a report by Swansea University, with at least 8,000 held for drug offences. According to the Tunisian General Directorate of State Security, in 2016 alone, 8,984 people were arrested on drug charges.
For possession of cannabis, a first-time offender could receive between one to five years and a fine of between 1,000 and 3,000 Tunisian dinars (£260-785). Trafficking charges can earn sentences of life in prison. According to a study of Tunis and northern Tunisia, cannabis use accounted for more than 96 percent of all drug consumption.
And there’s a clear socioeconomic type for those arrested or imprisoned under Law 52. According to a study by Lawyers Without Borders carried out between 2017 and 2020, out of the cases examined, 99.4 percent are men. Close to 67 percent are daily workers from poor backgrounds. None had access to lawyers while in pre-trial detention – just like Jebali was in for more than a year. Pre-trial detention is a chronic problem in Tunisia.
From the living room of his small apartment overlooking the sea in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette, Wael Zarrouk, a cannabis legalisation activist, pulled a pre-rolled cannabis joint out of a cigarette pack after finishing his breakfast. Zarrouk, too, was arrested for cannabis. He leaned forward in his chair and spoke gravely.
He spoke about his arrest in 2011 for distributing cannabis to friends. After his arrest, he was held for six days in prison, then police took him to a court where he said the judge ordered him to jail again. It was only after a month and a half that he went to trial.
He spent more than nine months in prison, where he claims he faced extreme conditions such as beatings and solitary confinement before a petition from his family and good behaviour won him an early release.
Like Jebali, after his release from prison Zarrouk lost his candidacy for a job he was to start shortly after the time of his arrest, and found employers who would hire him hard to come by.
And similar to Jebali, Zarrouk believes Law 52 has ulterior purposes: “As for the poor, the police arrest them on drug charges to justify their [own] existence.”
Since April 2020, Zarrouk has run a Facebook page called On Va Légaliser Pour Vous (“We Will Legalize For You”), which encourages the legalization of cannabis in Tunisia. The page hosts live discussions on cannabis, updates on the cases of those arrested for cannabis use, and supports other social movements.
Asked whether President Saied’s power grab would end the movement to legalize cannabis in Tunisia, Zarrouk said, “We all know that Kais Saied is a conservative and that it is difficult to bring up the subject of drug law reform given the situation in the country. But we are not going to give up. We are not going to talk about legalisation for the moment; but we will talk about decriminalisation.”
Despite President Saied’s overtures towards the security services, Zarrouk seemed to be waiting to see how the president’s moves might affect the pro-cannabis movement.
“We are observing [the situation], and we are ready to defend our cause at all costs.”
Corinna Mullin, a political science professor at John Jay College in New York who lived and taught in Tunisia after its 2011 revolution, described the history behind Law 52 and the social function she believes it’s designed to fill.
She noted that the IMF, World Bank and EU mandated structural adjustment programs in Tunisia from the 1980s onwards, which brought about privatisation of basic services and reduced public spending. This led to a deterioration of living standards of ordinary Tunisians, which produced rebellion among the population.
Because of this, Mullin said, the state built up the police, prisons and military to control the increased unrest. And she said she believes this led to the adoption of legislation like Law 52.
“Having this law in place enables the state to enhance the vulnerability of political activists and can be used as a tool to quell political dissent at crucial moments in time,” she said.
Mullin pointed to just two of the most high-profile cases of the use of Law 52 against proponents of the revolution: “Blogger and human rights activist Azyz Amami was arrested for possession and the intent to consume cannabis weeks after he vocalised support for a group of protestors accused of burning police stations. There was also the rapper Kafon, who rapped about social issues and was arrested for cannabis use.”
She went on: “We can see the law performing an important social control function as part of the carceral state. As Angela Davis argues, prisons are a place where 'social problems' e.g. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy' are made to 'disappear from public view.”
Olfa Lamloum, a sociologist and the country director at International Alert Tunisia, said that, “The criminalization of dissent is explained by the inability of the ruling elites to establish a stable hegemony and to respond to the social demands—jobs, dignity, justice—since [the revolution of] 2011.”
Law 52, she said, “Has largely contributed to the maintenance of authoritarian order in working-class neighbourhoods. It made it possible to ‘morally’ justify imprisonment, which [youth] described as massive, and to maintain, in their eyes, an arbitrary police force in these territories.”
Makram El Jelasi, a manager in the office of the Ministry of Justice, told the BBC in a formal letter that, “The General Council for Prisons and Reform, under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, is putting in place programs for rehabilitation and reintegration for drug users, especially youth.”
The official added that, “[Drug] legislation has been amended to strengthen its compatibility with United Nations standards and much tireless work has been done to ensure respect of those standards.”
However, El Jelasi wrote that despite the Ministry’s alleged efforts to help the formerly incarcerated, drug use remains a serious crime that needs to be fought.
“There’s a balance between human rights on one side and the battle against the crime of drug use… like the selling and promotion of drugs, which is dealt with in full firmness.”
Lamin Benghazi, a programs coordinator with Lawyers Without Borders, spoke on the terrace of his organisation’s office in Tunis about Law 52 and the status quo after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
Referring to the former president ousted in 2011, Benghazi said, “Law 52 was used heavily by the Ben Ali regime to intimidate and blackmail political dissent. Since 2011, things have shifted. Ben Ali left but the police state remained. It became a tool for the police to harass and terrorise marginalised and impoverished youth.”
Nationwide protests around the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution and its unkept promises—the protests which Jebali said had helped him avoid an extreme prison sentence—rocked the country in January and February. Some of the protests took aim at Law 52 itself. Numerous protestors were harassed or arrested under the pretext of drug consumption.
“What we saw in January and February does not augur well for what will happen next. We saw more than a thousand people arrested – 30 percent of them minors – with total disrespect of custody, and cases of torture.”
And referencing the extraordinary measures taken by the president on the 25th of July, Benghazi said there are indeed increased dangers of emboldened security apparatuses.
“Giving extra power to the Ministry of Interior will grant security forces more confidence in cracking down on their usual targets—drug consumers, protestors, LGBTQ community, and others… with the blessing of the presidency of the republic.”
Asked whether he believes that the political and legislative limbo prevailing after Saied took control will end the struggle to reform or abolish Law 52, Benghazi saw hope.
“The struggle [against Law 52] is not completely frozen and what happened on the 25th of July, despite all the dangers that it bears in terms of separation of powers, brings a set of opportunities that need to be seized by civil society and social movements working on the abolition of Law 52.”
Noting that Saied now holds legislative power, and his longstanding claim that he is on the side of the people, the poor and the marginalised, Benghazi noted, “He has the opportunity to change a law that destroyed thousands of lives and families. Whether his sympathy and genuine care for the marginalised take over his conservatism and immobilism remains to be seen.”
“But one thing is sure,” he added, “Civil society needs to keep trying. As it always did.”