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Tunisian Activists Call for Revision of Harsh Anti-Marijuana Penalties

Tunisia has very strict anti-marijuana laws. Following the arrest of activist and blogger Azyz Amami, who has been campaigning for abolishing such laws, calls to amend the country's legislation on drugs consumption multiplied.

Law 52 of May 18, 1992, which lays down punishments for drug-related offenses, provides for one to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to 3,000 dinars ($1,900) for those caught “consuming or possessing for personal consumption narcotic plants and substances, in cases not authorised by law.” The law further prescribes a prison sentence of up to three years and a maximum fine of 5,000 dinars ($3,100) for “anyone who deliberately frequents a place allocated and accommodated for the use of narcotics.”

According to recent United Nations figures, more than half of the 13,000 people in pre-trial detention, and around one third of Tunisia's 11,000 convicts were arrested for drugs abuse – marijuana, in particular.

These alarming figures have pushed a group of activists to launch Al Sajin 52 (‘Prisoner 52′ in reference to law 52 of 1998), a civil-society initiative seeking to amend the infamous law 52 and “save the country's future generations”. The group argues that this ‘repressive law’ only contributes to prison overcrowding and has not stopped the number of cannabis smokers from increasing.

They lay down their objectives [fr] as follows:

AlSAjin 52 vise l’avortement de la sentence d’emprisonnement à l’encontre des consommateurs de stupéfiants, particulièrement ceux du cannabis (ZATLA) régie par cette loi.
· AlSajin 52 ne cherche en aucun cas à encourager la consommation mais est convaincue que la sentence d’un an ou plus de prison, ne donne pas de motivation pour un sevrage dans grand nombre de cas.
· AlSajin 52 essaye par cette initiative de faire comprendre la réalité de cannabis, dans notre société de consommation, voire de surconsommation.

. Alsajin 52 aims for the abolition of prison sentences against narcotics consumers and in particular those [who smoke] marijuana, as it is stipulated by this law.
. Alsajin 52 are not in any way seeking to encourage consumption, but are convinced that the one year prison sentence or more does not, in a large number of cases, motivate for withdrawal.
. Alsajin 52 initiative seeks to help provide an understanding on the reality of marijuana in our society of consumption, or even over consumption

In mid-March, Al Sajin 52 petitioned [fr] Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa calling on him to host a national debate to revise the country's anti-marijuana laws.

'Prisoner 52, Let's Reform Law 52 of 18 May 1992'

‘Prisoner 52, Let's Reform Law 52 of 18 May 1992′

On May 12, police arrested one of the group's founders, blogger and activist Azyz Amami, along with a friend, on alleged accusations of marijuana consumption.

Following his arrest, calls to abolish prison sentences for smoking marijuana multiplied under the Twitter hash tags #loi52 (‘law 52′) and #A_BAS_LOI52 (‘down with law 52′).

@BoukornineBlog: For medical, cultural, political, economic and historical reasons, law 52 has to change. Drying up the bleeding is an urgency

@BoukornineBlog: Law 52 is the enemy, responsible for prison over crowding and a pretext to spoil lives and muzzle mounting voices

Medical doctor Zied Mhirsi tweeted:

Linda criticized the self-proclaimed democratic representatives at the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the country's legislature and currently the only body with the prerogatives to amend or abolish laws.

@Lindyys: ‘democratic’ representatives’ lack of courage is the main reason we are in this situation

Human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui tweeted:

@Mira404: Deputies who are shocked by the arrest of Azyz Amami, [we] do not need [your] support via a hash tag. Change the law!

Politicians responded.

NCA deputee Karima Souid from the centre-left Al-Massaar tweeted on May 14:

@KarimaSouid: This whole draconian and dictatorial judicial arsenal needs to be abolished. 1 joint, 1 year (in prison)= heresy

Zeinb Turki from the centre Al-Jomhouri party said:

@ZeinebTurki: More than ever we need to reform the legal framework related to cannabis consumption. Otherwise, it will remain the a Sword of Damocles

Anonymous political cartoonist Z writes [fr]:

Le blogueur et activiste Azyz Amami a été arrêté par la police hier soir pour, semble-t-il, consommation de cannabis. Si ce n'était l'exceptionnelle aura de ce personnage et sa notoriété révolutionnaire, peu de gens se seraient bougés pour dénoncer la violence de son arrestation et dénoncer par la-même la scandaleuse loi 52.

Blogger and activist Azyz Amami was arrested by police last night for apparently consuming cannabis. Had it not been for this exceptional person and his revolutionary notoriety, only few people would have denounced the violence [that accompanied] his arrest and also denounced the scandalous law 52

He warned that the campaign to free Amami should not overshadow the priority of abolishing law 52:

Cependant il ne faut surtout pas que la campagne en faveur de Azyz ne nous fasse oublier que la priorité consiste à supprimer la loi 52 et à reformuler les outils juridiques concernant la Zatla. Puis surtout, il ne faudrait pas que le soutien à Azyz soit considéré comme le privilège de ceux qui bénéficient de réseaux sociaux et de relais médiatiques.

However, the campaign in favour of Azyz should not make us forget that the priority is abolishing law 52 and reformulating the judicial tools related to Zatla (marijuana in Tunisian dialect). And mostly, the support for Azyz should not be considered the privilege of those who benefit from social networks and media relays

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