After the older brother of Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was prosecuted in absentia in a Parisian court for his participation throughout the 1980s in a drug ring known as the “Couscous Connection,” the Ben Ali regime enacted a face-saving 1992 drug law that administered one of the harshest punishments for marijuana possession in the world. “Law 52” removed judicial independence on minimum sentencing, leaving in its wake an overcrowded prison system and countless broken families. To date, 120,000 Tunisians, roughly one percent of the entire population of Tunisia, have been jailed via “Law 52.”
Following the 2010-2011 uprising, a number of Tunisian officials, including ex-President Beji Caid Essebsi, committed to a reform of the law. A 2015 study found that over a quarter of all prisoners were jailed for consumption, approximately 70% of whom were aged 18 to 30 years old. Despite a 2017 amendment that provided judges with the leeway to consider mitigating circumstances, an allowance for the involvement of social services for first and second-time offenders, the creation of a national drug observatory, and treatment centers with substitution therapy, conservative judges are nonetheless applying the full extent of the law (see page X). A February 1, 2021 ruling resulted in three men from the northwestern town of Kef being convicted of 30-years sentences each after they were caught smoking a cannabis joint in a defunct public football stadium. Neither the observatory nor the treatment centers have been addressed whatsoever to date (see page Y).
The response from the Tunisian public was once again uproarious. A majority of public officials, legal experts, and health practitioners--including Tunisian Prime Minister Mechichi--agree on the need for reform. Yet the government, mired in a deadlock over political jockeying, has yet to set a date to take up the bill in parliament. Traditionally, the Munathara Initiative organizes debate motions that evoke arguments either “FOR” or “AGAINST” an issue of “common concern.” However, Law 52 called for an alternative format: one that reveals the multifaceted sides to this complex policy issue. Therefore, on 14 March 2021, the Munathara Initiative held the Middle East and North Africa’s first nationally syndicated free and fair citizen-driven town hall under the hashtag: “#We_Change_Law_52_InOrderTo…”
The two-hour Zaama Towhnhall brought together an audience of youth, activists, and members of civil society in front of elected officials, health experts, analysts and academics who weighed in on the many possible solutions and amendments to the controversial law. Hosted by veteran moderators Elyes Gharby and Khouloud Mabrouk, the Munathara Initiative sought to provide a forum for an informed public conversation that could translate public opinion into public policy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS...………………………………………………………………………………..2
NOTABLE PARTICIPANT QUOTES……....…………….……………..…………………………3
GUESTS AND MODERATORS………….....……………………………………………………....7
LAW 52: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM…….……….………………………………...…….8
THE HEALTH ASPECT...…....……………………………………………………………........…….9
THE LEGAL AND HUMANITARIAN ASPECTS ……………………………...……......10
As of 18 March, 2021, 2.58 million people watched the first Zaama Townhall on Law 52 over 27 live radio and television broadcasts. The two-hour program covered various segments in the following sequence: 1) Contextualization (historical and political facts, shortcomings and limitations of the law, state of play), 2) the social dimension, 3) the medical and public health dimension, and 4) legal and human rights aspects. A fifth segment was dedicated to the recommendations presented by the youth - a first in the media treatment of the subject.
Makram Jelassi pledged to “pass a well-rounded law within a year.” He added: “Maybe less.” Oussama Khelifi also pledged to pass such a law, adding that his party already drafted a proposal. Zied Ghanney pledged to “legalize and organize” cannabis use, including eliminating prison sentences for cannabis use. Yassine Ayari refused to pledge to decriminalize and depenalize consumption on the basis that “countries who did decriminalize consumption have robust healthcare. They could do it without fearing the fallouts. We don’t, so we should go for legalization over decriminalization.” He later noted: “Gangs are pushing for lifting the prison sentence. They don’t want legalization, which is the bane of their existence.” Finally, Ghazi Mrabet, a lawyer and human rights activist, adumbrated a scenario wherein the government could vote a bill into law that abolishes prison sentencing for cannabis consumption and replaces it with a “symbolic fine,” followed by a general amnesty and providing reparations to those jailed under the 1992 law “by giving them their civil rights back” --
NOTABLE PARTICIPANT QUOTES
“The main root of this problem is political, as far as I am concerned. Politicians are responsible for the current situation. The main reason is that their voter base -- especially for majority-winning parties -- is conservative and traditional. And it isn’t their fault that they are. The rampant lies, misgivings and widespread hypocrisy are to blame. We’re talking here about social and governmental hypocrisies. The government is hypocritical because we aren’t planting marijuana or cocaine. We’re not making cocaine or ecstasy, which means these drugs are coming in from the outside. This means that it is linked to smuggling, maybe terrorism. And who’s to say who the main beneficiary is? The second major hypocrisy comes from the entire justice and judicial system. They are applying a non-constitutional law. Article 38 of the constitution guarantees the right to health care and protection, which is non-existent here. It’s not constitutional because it has us collect people’s fluids, such as urine, under subpar conditions, aka., coercion, torture, etc. The third major hypocrisy comes from the Tunisian government. It consists of arresting people, throwing them in prison for consumption and releasing them so they can come right back in for the same reason. Same goes for dealing. The fourth hypocrisy is that if we leave this studio and walk for a 100 meters, go to any local grocery store or cigarette stand, any of us could buy a pack of rolling paper. Who’s bringing that stuff in? And most importantly, who’s distributing it to the 35,000 stores all over the country? The fifth hypocrisy concerns the family. It comes from inside the family that doesn’t realize that their kid smokes until they receive the fateful call from a prosecutor to tell them their kid was arrested. When in truth, the kid has been smoking at home with his friends all along and unnoticed. The last hypocrisy, which is a brand new one, is that the entire political body agrees to the principal of amending Law 52 but does not actually want to do it. Why? Because their base does not want them to. There is no direct political benefit to incentivize politicians to reform this law.”
- Ghazi Mrabet, Lawyer and Human Rights Activist
“After six days in Bouchoucha, the rest went home and only the three of us stayed. They went home because they paid a 30,000 [dinar] bribe... So, we didn’t have the means to pay 30,000, which means we were sent to prison. It was shocking to see 150, 160 prisoners in one room meant to accommodate 25 people. Four of us slept in a corner the first night. I didn’t go to the bathroom for ten days. It was a lot. I can’t describe it. I can’t.”
- Wael Zarrouk, Witness
“Social stigma doesn’t only impact the Law 52 convicts. It impacts all prisoners in Tunisia, notwithstanding their offense. What’s worse, this stigma is legally enforced. We have complicated laws that make it difficult to fully recover your civil rights if you have a criminal record. If you try to work or enroll in school you’ll be faced with complicated legal obstacles, pertaining to B3. It’s even difficult and sometimes impossible to travel. So the stigma impacts a lot more than Law 52 prisoners. The subject of prisons and the penitentiary institution poses deep and complicated questions about any society we live in, or want to live in. Is it a punitive society? Is it an exclusive or inclusive society? These are the questions to answer, in my opinion. Again, in my opinion, our society is, now, beyond exclusive. We have categories of people that have become fair game to violate. Wasted potential. We have 12,000 dangerous illegal immigration attempts (harka), every year. And from 2016 to 2020, and according to the ministry of justice and the statistics that Zied Ghaney mentioned earlier, 12,430 tunisian youth were incarcerated based on Law 52. We don’t even know the number of youth in S17 [restriction of movement order] who are forbidden from travel. We have youth cut off from education and culture. The unemployment rate among youth is in the hundred thousands. We have the creative potential that other societies are looking for; that they open their immigration programs to. We have this captive creative energy in our society and no creative outlets. So we are past exclusionism. We are wasting human potential and violating humans.”
- Jihed Haj Salem, Professor of Sociology
“I haven’t seen any of these programs you’re talking about, to be honest. I know that the JCC [youth festival] is in prisons around a certain time. But as far as I know, not all the inmates are allowed to watch. Since we’re talking about the social aspect, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier, Mr. Mezguich, about torture and maltreatment. You said that today, in Tunisia, the government is not implementing a torture policy. In truth, as an organization that works in the field to serve youth, by youth, we’re not very convinced that what you said is true. Article 101 which appears multiple times in the Criminal Law Review, is contradictory to the International Anti-Torture agreement, which Tunisia has signed. We used to hear urban myths about politicians and activists being tortured, pre-revolution. Well, today torture and maltreatment still exist, post-revolution. They’re not targeted at opposition leaders anymore. They’re targeted at a brand new category: they’re targeted at cannabis users, youth, the LGBTQ community, and other minorities.”
- Oussama Bouajila, By Lhwem
“If we sum up everything that’s been said tonight, we’ll come out with: there is no political will to deal with the situation. We also live -- we have to say it -- in a conservative society. We can’t deny that zatla is still a pejorative term in our society. The thoughts of someone who went to prison or uses zatla are associated with negative feelings, still. This requires a lot of work. And I would like to thank civil society for what they do, and our young people, for being aware of this issue. And here’s our role, as a legislative body: this isn’t just a law. This is an anti-constitutional law. It contradicts or is against the constitution. We’re talking about the constitution of 2014, which prioritizes freedom. There are even other laws, plenty of laws that we need to revisit and pay attention to. However, today’s politicians are engrossed in a different fight -- an ideological one -- where they’re trying to best each other at accumulating power. They don’t have time for these real issues that people care about and that could benefit our youth.”
- Oussama Khelifi, MP Qualb Tounes
“One of our most challenging indicators is -- what we’ve been talking about today -- overcrowded prison units. It’s based on the number of arrested people, the number of beds and the surface area of a given facility. Everyone who’s been to prison knows it’s a real problem. This even poses difficulties to our prison guards. They’re supposed to handle 50, 60 inmates but find themselves dealing with 150, 160 inmates instead. Secondly, when we talk about a penitentiary institution, we need to mention the social stigma that comes with it and not just for those prisoners who were released. For women, for example -- and need I remind you that our society says “prison is for men'' -- they don’t mention women here. They get double the stigma.”
- Sofien Mezguich, Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee
“I’m the night guard and I was sentenced to 30 years. I think I didn’t walk for a month after that. 30 years! That's the longest prison sentence anyone has ever gotten in Tunisia. I went home after my release to find that my mom had an aneurysm. My dad could barely move. He was six thousand dinars in debt after what happened to me. I stopped working. Prison destroyed my life. My mom cannot walk straight anymore. I don’t know what else to say about this law.”
- Faycel Jbebli, Witness
They were sentenced to 30 years, which takes into consideration that they were on the premises of municipal grounds, more specifically in the night guards' lodgings, which is considered official government housing. The court considered the lodgings part of the stadium, whether we agreed or not. There was one thing that made a splash, besides the 30-year sentence -- which did too. We secured a document from the regional Committee of Youth and Sports in El Kef. It was addressed to the presiding judge at the court of appeals and it stated that the municipal stadium, Nour Eddine ben Jilela, located in El Kef, did not have a validity or qualification certificate. This was the alleged scene of the crime. So, naturally, this document helped us lift the aggravated penalty requirement and Article 11.
- Molka Bouderbala, Lawyer for the Youth of El Kef Defense Committee
Most judges apply different approaches that are not compatible with society’s evolution and with the new generations. Said generation is focused on rights and freedoms and is in no way compatible with our outdated judicial system; this tired, tired judiciary that is blindly and mechanically applying an outdated criminal system. Unfortunately, it leads us to rulings that turn a blind eye to the accused’s circumstances and realities. In the instance that was mentioned in the story, the judge did not seek to know whether there was actually a functioning stadium before he issued a 20 year sentence, let alone think about why the legislature criminalized consumption in 1992. You’d think he’d try to put the citation in a real context; to try and understand it. For example, if the legislative criminalized smoking in stadiums in 1992, they must’ve been thinking about the public and the athletes at an active game and [how] smoking would impact them. This stadium was vacant and hasn’t been in use. Therefore, if we go back to the judge’s approach, we need to understand that we were entrusted with a sacred mission to protect people’s freedoms and rights under the new constitution of 2014. We need to change our culture and root this idea deep in ourselves. Doesn’t this make it unacceptable to sentence a person to 30 years when they are not a criminal? I’ll say it again: this man who was convicted for consumption is not a criminal. This was a personal choice, even though I consider it -- and society considers it -- wrong.
- Omar Wesleti, Judge and HAICA Member
GUESTS AND MODERATORS
Political Party Representatives:
Oussama Khelifi: On behalf of Qalb Tounes
Zied Ghanney: On behalf of Attayar
Yassine Ayari: On behalf of Amal wa Aamal
Judge Makram Jelassi: Chief of Mission at the Office of the Minister of Justice
Sofien Mezghich: Official Spokesperson for the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee
Doctor Amira Khelifi: On behalf of the Tunisian Society of Addictology
Omar Wesleti: Judge and HAICA Member
Ghazi Mrabet: Lawyer and Human Rights Activist
Jihed Haj Salem: Professor of Sociology
Oussama Bouajila: On behalf of association By Lhwem
Lamine Benghazi: On behalf of Lawyers without Borders
Sabrine Daraji: On behalf of ATL MST Sida [Tunisian Association for the Fight Against HIV/STDs]
Competitors and Audience Participation:
Wissal Abboud: Competitor from Sousse
Yasmine Ben Feguira: Competitor from Gabes
Oussema Boufaied: Competitor from Gabes
Nour Romdhane: Competitor from Gabes
Nada Hammami: Competitor from Beja
Chadha Naoui: Competitor from Gabes
Rafed Rabbeh: Competitor from Tunis
Haythem Ben Yahya: Competitor from Gabes
Mostafa Krimi: Competitor from Tunis
Oumayma Hajjem: Competitor from Sfax
Mohamed Ben Hamida: Competitor from Tunis
Translated by: Rim Zouabi Bolger
[Beginning of Transcript]
Elyes Gharbi: Hello and welcome everyone. We meet tonight for a special episode from the Zaama series, the first debate series in Tunisian Derja, targeting youth between 16 and 35 years old, organized by the Munathara Initiative, the leading nonprofit in organizing debates for Arabic speakers. Zaama Townhall is a new format of debate, seen for the first time on Arabic TV. This format gives politicians and citizens the opportunity to debate a certain topic, with each other. Today, our meeting is unique, and because it is exceptional, I am joined by an exceptional colleague, Khouloud Romdhan. Welcome Khouloud.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Good evening Elyes, and good evening to all of our viewers and followers on more than 20 mediums. We have a historical debate for you tonight, which means, we have, here with us, decision-makers and government representatives to debate Law 52, aka., The “one year and a vespa” Law, in street talk. We have plenty of youth- present tonight- to debate with us and ask questions. Lately, we’ve had a lot of unrest and protesting against Law 52. And most recently, three of our youth, from El Kef, were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Of course, the verdict was appealed last week. Still, we’ve had more of the same, with 17-year, 6-year, and 10-year verdicts being doled out.
Elyes Gharbi: And unrest in the streets...
Khouloud Mabrouk: Of course. Especially since the verdicts are still being carried out, and the cause is cannabis consumption.
Elyes Gharbi: Khouloud, we will talk today about the exploitation of cannabis consumption. We will talk about drugs and about revisiting Law 52. We are going to hear our youth debate the decision makers in Tunisia, which is extremely important. Besides, we will also hear multiple testimonials from various perspectives. We’re going to have testimonials from people who were jailed, about their experiences on the inside. We will also hear testimonials from people who, from cannabis use, fell into other addictions. But before we start, Khouloud, and to guarantee everyone’s safety, I’d like to say hello to both our in-person and virtual audience. Look how amazing they are and how numerous and fantastic they are.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Welcome!
Elyes Gharbi: A virtual hello to all of them. As usual, they will vote and give us their opinions at the beginning of this episode: Are you for or against decriminalizing cannabis consumption?
They will vote again at the end of the episode and we’ll get to see whether the consensus changed. “Change Law 52 in order to…” Why did we choose this topic? We’ll be back right after this story.
Narrator: The debates around reforming Law 52 -- the anti-drug law in Tunisia -- banning the criminalization of cannabis consumption and legalizing it, are making a strong comeback in our country today following a few lawsuits that provoked the public’s disapproval. Among the causes: three youth in El Kef were convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for cannabis consumption in a stadium, as well as a student in the capital, who was sentenced to 17 years for cannabis consumption. The strenuous and lengthy verdicts provoked a tide of unrest and sympathy protests, in which numerous associations, civil rights groups and political parties participated, demanding to lighten the toll on drug users, particularly concerning cannabis, which is widespread, especially among youth. In addition, some parliamentary groups proposed legislative initiatives to amend Law 52, which was created 30 years ago as part of a political ploy, or what we know as the “Couscous Connection Affair.” Furthermore, several research studies published by an important number of human rights organizations found that the punitive approach within Tunisia’s Law 52 has failed. This is supported by the growing number of convicts in drug use cases. In fact, according to the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee’s statistics for December 2015, 70% of prisoners were convicted of zatla consumption or possession. In contrast, some people are outspoken against any amendments to Law 52, including decriminalizing consumption. They tout many reasons, the most frequent of which is the absence of a treatment system, which would include addiction treatment centers; the absence of a governmental strategy; the dangers of zatla use for teenagers; and finally, the fear of a thriving black market and the rise of money laundering crimes, in case of decriminalization. The Munathara initiative, through Zaama Townhall, opens the Law 52 amendment topic to discussion, once more.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We chose our topic -- “We change Law 52 in order to…” -- for all the aforementioned reasons. Before we start the discussion, let’s welcome our guests and the youth. I would also like to add an important caveat: We are not, in the least, encouraging drug use. We are merely discussing a law, Law 52, to be precise. The general consensus among experts, activists, and specialists in most fields is that the punitive and disincentivizing approach has failed in dealing with cannabis users. It did not achieve the desired effect. It did not decrease drug use. Elyes, I would like to welcome our guests, starting with the political party representatives. Let’s begin with Oussama Khelifi, here to represent Qualb Tounes. Welcome.
Oussama Khelifi: Thank you.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Zied Ghanney, here to represent Attayar Adimoucrati. Welcome to you too.
Zied Ghanney: Hi Khouloud.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Yassine Ayari, here to represent Amal wa Amaal. Welcome.
Yassine Ayari: Hello, and welcome everyone.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Latifa Habbachi, a representative from Ennahdha was supposed to be with us today. However, she canceled, late last night, which means we don’t have anyone speaking on behalf of Ennahdha with us. Welcome, representatives.
Elyes Gharbi: We have here, as well, a government representative: Judge Makram Jelassi. Welcome, Mr. Makram. Thank you for accepting our invitation. It is important that the executive branch be represented today. And of course we have with us Mr. Sofien Merguich, Official Spokesman for the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee. Also, very important for the penitentiary and correctional services to be represented in a discussion around Law 52. Dr. Amira Khelifi, welcome doctor, here representing the Tunisian Society of Addictology. [And] Judge Omar Wesleti. We will talk today about judicial conscience, judicial decisions, and how judges interpret this law, even post the amendment or reform of 2017.
Omar Wesleti: Thank you.
Khouloud Mabrouk: As we mentioned at the beginning of our program, we have a group of experts and representatives from civil society with us tonight. People who actively think about, work on and decide to change said law.
Elyes Gharbi: Especially in the field, Khouloud.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Of course, they work in the field and on every aspect of this law. Ghazi Mrabet, the seasoned lawyer and human rights activist, who has been working on this issue for a long time. Welcome. A sociology professor, Jihed Haj Salem, welcome. Representing the By Lhwem association, Oussama Bouajila is here with us. And representing Lawyers Without Borders, we have Lamine ben Ghazi with us tonight. Sabrine Daraji is also present with us tonight, representing ATL MST Sida. Welcome all.
Elyes Gharbi: We will hear from Sabrine about the health aspect, which is very important. Our topic tonight has many dimensions. But first, let me say hello to those for whom all of this has been organized: our youth who participated in Munathara’s debate competition. Greetings to our youth and welcome. They will participate in tonight’s discussion with us. They have plenty of questions about every sub-topic of our discussion. We would like to remind you that from 300 competitors, the public voted to choose tonight’s audience and jury. In between both, we have 12 young people here in the audience with us. Welcome to all of them. They have important questions for our legislative and executive, which we will hear later. I mentioned before that we asked our virtual audience to vote on the question: are you for or against decriminalizing cannabis consumption. Here are the first results: 72% for decriminalization. 28% against. I repeat: 72% said “I am for decriminalizing the use of zatla.” 28% said “I am against decriminalizing the use of zatla.” These are the first statistics of the night, Khouloud.
Khouloud Mabrouk: As you were reading the statistics, I was looking for our guests and youth reactions. The numbers speak for themselves. We’ll come back to that.
Elyes Gharbi: We will see if the vote shifts later on. We will hear from everyone, and everyone is here, so we can start. Our first segment is called “The Root of the Problem.”
[Fade to screen. Law 52: The Root of the Problem]
Elyes Gharbi: Speaking about the root of the problem, Wissal Abboud, [you have] 99 seconds. Go ahead Wissal. The stage is yours. Tell us what is, in your opinion, the root of the problem.
Wissal Abboud: Hello. We need to change Law 52 in order to save a large category of our youth, who are the country’s future. When we think of a legal principle, we think of a law that organizes and governs society. Therefore, this law should work seamlessly with society’s evolutions and particularities. However, Law 52 is 30 years old, still in effect, with its harsh punishments, unamended. What’s worse is that no scientific basis, treatment plan, nor reform intent were included in crafting this law. Instead, it was passed, for purely political purposes, following the “Couscous Connection Affair.” Ben Ali’s brother, who was sentenced to ten years over an international drug suit, embarrassed him. So, this was his perfect solution to the problem. That is, actually, why we did not discuss this law before the revolution. Then, comes the revolution. We debated, discussed and talked anew about Law 52. However, nothing changed in the first six years. Later, Mr. Beji Caid Sebssi -- God rest his soul -- introduced a great initiative. Even though the amendment passed in 2017, we’re still imprisoning youth. A lot of youth were victimized by this law. And that’s why we have a lot to say. The treatment- centric approach exists in this law and looks great on paper; but in real life it is non-existent. Thus, I believe it is high time we actually used that approach. Finally, I would like to close with a quote by Einstein: “Stupidity is doing the same thing twice, in exactly the same way and expecting different results.” I would also like to address your guests, who tonight represent all three branches of government. I want to say please do something. Let’s move ahead. The situation is extremely dire.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you, Wissal, and well done. Really, I would like to cheer you on and say that our youth are fantastic. We are glad you are here and hope that your words start carrying more weight, for the sake of generations to come. Oussama Khelifi. Same principle: 99 seconds. We were listening to a Tunisian citizen who gave us her thoughts on the roots of the problem. What are the roots of the problem, in your opinion, Mr. Representative?
Oussama Khelifi: She [expert on video shown] is correct in what she was saying. The root of the problem of Law 52 is that it is an unjust and outdated law that does not consider the principle of freedom. It is here to put youth in prison; put people in prison. But you want to know what we are doing, as representatives of the people? We did not settle for words, at Qualb Tounes. We started an initiative, on February 9th, that includes young people’s demands, such as the ones you just heard. It asks to abolish prison sentences and replace them with other, lighter sentences. Anything but jail for this offense. We introduced this initiative to address your demands of removing the jail sentences from the law. We also asked the government to treat addiction. We asked them to fulfill their public health responsibilities. All international reports on the topic say that the topic of cannabis is not treated as a criminal topic anymore. It is treated as a health issue. We need to treat our youth and the government needs to do its part. They also need to do their part, when it comes to spreading awareness. Laws like these are truly outdated and they do not serve people. Instead, it harms youth and destroys their future. Therefore, we didn’t wait and see but took the initiative. Our proposal exists and we will defend it.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Oussama Khelifi, you still have 12 seconds.
Elyes Gharbi: Would you like to use the 12 seconds, Mr Oussama? Or are you done?
Khouloud Mabrouk: Would you tell us more about your party’s initiative that you mentioned?
Oussama Khelifi: Of course we’re going to talk about the initiative tonight; and in great detail. We will talk about what we proposed and open it to discussion. That is why you are here tonight, and we’re happy to have you.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you. You are correct. We will be discussing the details of your initiative in tonight’s episode. Thank you Oussama Khelifi. Zied Ghanney, to represent Attyar. Wissal was addressing you, as the legislative branch, when she said that the situation is extremely dire. What are the roots of the problem? Why did we get to this point?
Zied Ghanney: The root of the problem is that we do not want to address social issues. Instead, we want to cover them up. The root of the problem is cultural. It is that our institutions want to embellish their image, when in reality, the situation is tragic. Here’s the root of the legal problem: This law leans on a legal approach that has been the same since 1969. The legislative root to this problem is that this law was crafted within a punitive framework. What is more, this law is insane. Article 7 of Law 52 says that whomever uses or dedicates a space to drug use can get ten to 20 years. You’d think that “uses” might have the same meaning as “dedicates”, in this case. However, in the law’s text, both are mentioned: “uses” and “dedicates”. Therefore, if we took the law’s text literally, to avoid penalties, a person would have to vanish from existence, after smoking. This is a law that was crafted for the purposes of PR and propaganda. It came from a very particular situation. The first time this law was examined was in 1998. Similarly, it was examined to save face. That’s when they first added the treatment-centric approach. The same happened in 2017, when we wanted to refresh our image. We do not actually have an anti-drug policy. Because if we did, the first thing we would have done would be to study cannabis and its effects on a culture. This substance has existed since the 19th century -- 1814 to be exact. A wide range of discussions among the political starta exists on this topic. This substance was first criminalized in 1953. So, we owe it to the people to revisit the law after 10 years of democracy. We need to start a culture of treating drugs, relative to their circulation and effects. That’s the minimum we could do. cannabis is what is widespread in Tunisia today. The root of the problem, then, is avoiding the real reasons and staying at a superficial level, where only our image matters.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you, Mr. Representative. Well said. Yassine Ayari, here on behalf of Amal wa Amaal, will also tell us about the root of the problem. Go ahead, Mr. Yassine. Tell us what, in your opinion, is the root of the problem with Law 52.
Yassine Ayari: First things first, let’s discard the term cannabis. My mother is watching this program tonight and would probably not understand it. Let’s use the Tunisian slang “zatla” instead. Let me be very honest with our viewers. I want to address some parts of the reportage that we saw earlier. What do you mean when you say this is Ben Ali’s law? I think we’re confusing things here. Based on that, we should, then call our traffic laws Ben Ali’s laws, since they were drafted during his time. Don’t get me wrong. Law 52 is a bad law but let’s not politicize this issue. Let’s agree on one principle first. Drugs aren’t a good thing. Drugs are bad. Drugs aren’t cool. Drugs aren’t benign. Let’s not confuse things here. I’ll say it again. Drugs are bad. That’s indeed what you said when you started the show. We are not encouraging drug use of any kind. Part of the problem is that drug use is now a social trend. It is so widespread that we cannot ignore it. We need to find a way to deal with it. The young lady who spoke just a few minutes ago mentioned that this law -- with its attempt at disincentivizing, through harsh punishment -- did not yield any positive results. We can’t know that, as we don’t have any comparative data. The only way to know if it works is to try the alternative and examine the results. If Law 52 didn’t have a harsh punitive component we might be dealing with an increase in the number of drug users. I’m not only talking about Zatal but drugs at large. Law 52 is not just dealing with zatla. It was created to deal with cocaine, heroine, LSD, and other similar poisons. So, to sum up: drugs are poison. They’re not good. They are harmful. Using is not a personal freedom. I know you’re thinking “I’m not harming anyone by smoking a joint.” That’s not true. How do you think the joint made it to you? Through the gangs that are smuggling it in and bribing policemen and customs’ agents to get it to you. And do you know where the money you pay for drugs goes? It holds back your economy. Drugs are bad. The government has dropped the ball on this until it became a social trend. Now we have to address multiple aspects at once.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you Yassine Ayari. Let’s go back to…
Elyes Gharbi: He used up the entirety of his 99 seconds. Very efficient, isn’t he?
Khouloud Mabrouk: That he is. I will have to come back to you when it is time for audience questions about the root of the problem, Yassine Ayari. Let me move on to Ghazi Mrabet, now. Ghazi Mrabet you have two minutes, not 99 seconds.
Yassine Ayari: That’s unfair.
Khouloud Mabrouk: He needs the two minutes to go way back to the deep root of the problem.
Yassine Ayari: Do as you wish, Khouloud.
Elyes Gharbi: He isn’t an elected official. He belongs to civil society. We’re giving him more time than the Parliament Representatives. You’ll have time to answer the audience’s question. You also have the biggest platform, which is parliament. Please go ahead and speak sir.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Look: Elyes Gharbi gave the long explanation, as to why. Ghazi Mrabet, please take the mic.
Ghazi Mrabet: Right. The main root of this problem is political, as far as I am concerned. Politicians are responsible for the current situation. The main reason is that their voter base -- especially for majority-winning parties -- is conservative and traditional. And it isn’t their fault that they are. The rampant lies, misgivings and widespread hypocrisy are to blame. We’re talking here about social and governmental hypocrisies. The government is hypocritical because we aren’t planting marijuana or cocaine. We’re not making cocaine or ecstasy, which means these drugs are coming in from the outside. This means that it is linked to smuggling, maybe terrorism. And who’s to say who the main beneficiary is? The second major hypocrisy comes from the entire justice and judicial system. They are applying a non-constitutional law. Article 38 of the constitution guarantees the right to health care and protection, which is non-existent here. It’s not constitutional because it has us collect people’s fluids, such as urine, under subpar conditions, aka., coercion, torture, etc. The third major hypocrisy comes from the Tunisian government. It consists of arresting people, throwing them in prison for consumption and releasing them so they can come right back in for the same reason. Same goes for dealing. The fourth hypocrisy is that if we leave this studio and walk for a 100 meters, go to any local grocery store or cigarette stand, any of us could buy a pack of rolling paper. Who’s bringing that stuff in? And most importantly, who’s distributing it to the 35,000 stores all over the country? The fifth hypocrisy concerns the family. It comes from inside the family, that doesn’t realize that their kid smokes until they receive the fateful call from a prosecutor to tell them their kid was arrested. When in truth, the kid has been smoking at home with his friends all along and unnoticed. The last hypocrisy, which is a brand new one, is that the entire political body agrees to the principal of amending Law 52 but does not actually want to do it. Why? Because their base does not want them to. There is no direct political benefit to incentivize politicians to reform this law.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Ghazi.
Ghazi Mrabet: Wait. Let me finish on a slightly positive note.
Khouloud Mabrouk: You have one second to conclude.
Ghazi Mrabet: I think we are at the end of the cycle, now that it’s been 30 years. Ever since this all started, there’s been a cycle. Since the order to farm [cannabis-based drug] takrouri in 1875. Then came 1900, 1927, then after our independence in 1969 and 1992. Today, after 30 years, I hope we can change the law and that the law can evolve as society does.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Ghazi Mrabet and well put. Elyes, I’m going to show a few anonymous interviews that I feel are essential at this point. These are youth testimonials about using cannabis and going to prison because of it. Let’s hear these testimonials then, we’ll be back.
[Fade to screen. Anonymous Testimonials.]
Anonymous 1: I am in my last year of high school, or BAC. I live with my parents and we lead a good life. I smoke, like a lot of folks. I use zatla. I had an average of 12 on my first trimester in school. That made my family happy. Had an average of 11 the second trimester. We were all expecting that I pass my A-levels, then go on living, like everybody else. Then, they got my friends from the neighborhood. Then, my friends gave my name up. I thought I could take some papers with me, show them that I was doing well in school, that I’m a good citizen. Get off easy, you know. To my surprise, I was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars. I saw things that I couldn’t even imagine in prison. Drugs were much more rampant in there than outside. I served my time and went home at the end of 2009. I didn’t last three days. I was on the cops’ radar now. I was arrested three days later because of drug use. There is no way prison is going to correct your behaviour. Don’t believe that just because it’s called Penitentiary and Correctional services... They were the cause of our destruction. Penitentiary and Destructive Services would be a more appropriate name.
Anonymous 2: I served my time and was released. I remained on the outside for two or three years, then started using again. I got arrested again. I evolved in prison. I got used to it and learnt the system well. I knew how to act, who to befriend among the inmates and guards. I was self-serving. I became a cell supervisor, a senior, or Kabraan. I had authority in prison. The merchandise made it to me. I used and dealt to people, who in turn used and dealt themselves.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you for watching. We’re talking about Law 52 and the reason why we should reform it. Sofien Mezghich represents the Penitentiary and Correctional Services. I heard something that bothered me. I heard “I became a Kabraan.” Does that mean that there is a different governing law than the law that governs the rest of us inside prisons? Not to mention another major problem: prisons in Tunisia are overcrowded. We are faced with a complete government failure in this situation, Mr. Sofien.
Sofien Mezghich: I want to make one thing clear, first. Since the 2017 amendment to Law 52 and the use of Article 53, which allows the use of leniency in sentencing, judges are now free to use penalties that do not strip convicts of their freedoms. Which, as you know, reduced the number of prison sentences and prisoners. The statistic, which was about 6,000 in 2017, was now reduced by half, in a year. I’m talking about the number of imprisonments in a year, for the year 2020.
Elyes Gharbi: From 2017 to 2019 the statistic is approximately 9,000.
Sofien Mezghich: Yes. Approximately. The number of cannabis consumers that we have in prison, currently, is approximately 819 prisoners. The majority of those -- almost 83% -- are youth with ages ranging between 18 and 39 years old. We are tasked with protecting the law and executing sentences. However, and speaking of consumption, everyone knows that Law 52 should be revisited after 30 years. And the approach we take needs to be collaborative and address the social, health, prevention and awareness aspects.
Elyes Gharbi: So, are you admitting that the problem is real?
Sofien Mezghich: Of course it’s real. Earlier, though, you mentioned a separate governing law for prisons. We have an organization and a procedure. I’m not going to mention exceptional cases. I want to explain what a Kabraan is. We have a group accommodation system in prison. When we pick a room supervisor, aka., Kabraan, his file goes to a committee that examines his behaviour, etc. There is a system of anointing a Kabraan. We’re obviously, again, not mentioning exceptional cases. Transgressions occur in prison, just like in any other public institution. However, I assure you that we, the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee, do not tolerate any of that, whether it comes from guards or prisoners. We, as a public institution, are subject to scrutiny. Subject to…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Mr. Mezghich, we do believe you. We know that you try very hard to practice what you preach. If you please, I am going to give the mic to a young man, who has been jailed. He served nine months for cannabis consumption. Today, he is a social activist and the founder of the group “On va légaliser pour vous.” Wael, please go ahead. We are listening.
Elyes Gharbi: Where is Wael?
Khouloud Mabrouk: Wael, we’ll get a mic to you right away.
Elyes Gharbi: Try to anticipate so the mic gets to our guests faster.
Khouloud Mabrouk: No worries. Tell us about your experience with prison, Wael, compared to what Mr. Mezghich just shared.
[Wael Zarrouk: Witness]
Wael Zarrouk: With all due respect, everything you said is wrong. The Kabraan doesn’t have to pass a committee evaluation. The Kabraan has to be a snitch. That is how he is chosen. In any case, this isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the fact that you call it the “Penitentiary and Correctional Services.” There’s only “Penitentiary” that’s correct in that name. Examine my case for exemple. I used to smoke two to three joints per week. I went to prison, then I was released. Now, and using just my phone while sitting at home, I can easily get ten kilos. There are no correctional services. Prison doesn’t fix anything. On the contrary, it breaks everything. It ruins your life, your family, your relationships. What else do you want to know?
Elyes Gharbi: We want to know how life was for you in there. How was your experience on the first day? The second day? How did you get in there? How were you when you left? What did you experience there?
Wael Zarrouk: I was asleep, at home, when 14 cars showed up at 3:00 AM. They kicked in my parents’ door, took me and left.
Elyes Gharbi: For consumption?
Wael Zarrouk: For consumption? I saw 13 accused in there whom I didn’t know. Actually, two of them were my friends. I didn’t know the rest. After six days in Bouchoucha, the rest went home and only the three of us stayed. They went home because they paid a 30,000 [dinar] bribe.
Elyes Gharbi: That’s a topic we will discuss further, later. Go on.
Wael Zarrouk: Right. So, we didn’t have the means to pay 30,000, which means we were sent to prison. It was shocking to see 150, 160 prisoners in one room meant to accommodate 25 people. Four of us slept in a corner the first night. I didn’t go to the bathroom for ten days. It was a lot. I can’t describe it. I can’t.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Did they arrest you during the weekend, Wael?
Wael Zarrouk: On Friday.
Khouloud Mabrouk: So you spent three days in custody, waiting for the business week to start? Also, wait. 30,000 per person, or was it for all the accused you mentioned?
Wael Zarrouk: There were three of them.
Khouloud Mabrouk: 30 for all three?
Wael Zarrouk: Correct. 30 for all three.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Mr. Sofien, please keep that in mind. So, what happened on the weekend they arrested you?
Wael Zarrouk: We were kept at Bouchoucha for six days. They’d take us to the police station to be investigated. Then, they’d put us back in Bouchoucha. I’m not even going to mention the beatings and the casual slaps. We all know about those.
Khouloud Mabrouk: And what happened Monday?
Elyes Gharbi: You are here to tell us about everything, Wael, including the beatings and maltreatment.
Wael Zarrouk: Of course.
Elyes Gharbi: So? Tell us.
Wael Zarrouk: I’ll tell you what happened when they first arrested me. They put me in a Hummer. I don’t know if you remember but this was when the military was patrolling with the police, right after the revolution. It was May 27th, 2011. So, the soldier -- remember we thought the military were better people -- the soldier had his combat boot on my head in the back of the Hummer, the whole way from La Goulette to Gorjeni. Then, they took me in, where they send you someone who tries to scare you into talking. Just so you know what’s awaiting you. In summary, I didn’t recognize my two friends that I found there. I swear. I didn’t recognize them, including my friend who gave up my name. I didn’t blame him at all. I still tell him that I never blamed him and that I forgave him. I can’t blame him. They tortured him. A lot.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Right. So, Wael, you were arrested on Friday and on Monday you were going to start a new job, correct?
Wael Zarrouk: Correct. I was going to be a Maitre D at CTN.
Khouloud Mabrouk: What happened?
Wael Zarrouk: The job was gone.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We’ll come back to that. We have an important segment tonight concerning the social aspects and fallouts. Thank you, Wael.
Wael Zarrouk: Thank you.
Elyes Gharbi: Sofien Mezghich, a lot was said. He talked about torture through describing his arrest. He described the conditions inside the prison. This is not news to Tunisian citizens. It’s part of our lives. Young people live through this. Regular citizens go through this, whether it’s for cheques or drugs, etc. The conditions in prison are unacceptable.
Sofien Mezghich: I believe that multiple reports from research and watchdog institutions have shown that there is no torture policy being applied. If you find cases that amount to mistreatment, those are the exception and not the rule. In addition, the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee routinely opens administrative investigations. Offending officers, whom we won’t mention by name, stand before disciplinary committees. And in case the offense is criminal in nature, the Ministry of Justice allows us to prosecute the offenders. I do have to say that overcrowding is indeed a problem in prisons, and it is, in part, because of those in custody over consumption -- approximately 60% of all prisoners. It is also true that the government spends a lot of money that could be better allocated inside prisons. In any case, we should not encourage drug consumption. It’s noteworthy that some inmates, convicted for robbery or violence, for instance, have addiction problems too. Let’s not just consider the inmates convicted for consumption only. Besides, we want our youth to be law-abiding and a force for progress. We also protect the family unit. We, as the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee, abide by Article 30, which states that the government should consider the good of the family in executing sentences. We know that consumption dismantles the family unit.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Excuse me, Mr. Mezghich. All these points are quite important and we’ll get to discuss them further. The question at hand is how does one find themselves in prison? How are they treated there? What happens the first time? We are not talking about repeat offenders, Mr. Sofien. We’re talking about what we just heard in the testimonial. We’ll get to discuss all further questions at a later time. We need to move on. We still have to discuss the health and social aspects.
Elyes Gharbi: Let’s move on and open the discussion to the audience, Khouloud. Who, here, has a question for the MPs, the representatives from civil society, or our quests from the executive branch? Yassmine. Go ahead.
Yasmine Ben Feguira: Hi. My question is for Mr. Makram Jelassi, as a government representative. Mr, Makram, following all that we’ve heard here today and the report we watched, I think we can see that Law 52 has been failing since 1992 and keeps failing every day. My question is: why [are you] so attached to this law? Why don’t you want to change it? How many Tunisian families need to suffer? How many futures have to be destroyed before you reform this law? This is my question and in my opinion it’s high time we reformed it.
Elyes Gharbi: Okay. Mr. Makram, please go ahead and answer.
Makram Jelassi: Well put, everyone. Well put, Yassmine. To answer your question, we all agree that this law needs to be reformed. We are aware of the outcry that Wissal performed on behalf of Tunisian youth. We will reform this law. There is no doubt about that.
Yasmine Ben Feguira: When? I want to know when.
Khouloud Mabrouk: When, Mr Makram? We all asked the same question.
Makram Jelassi: When we all agree about how to reform it. If it were just up to the government, or the Minister of Justice, to work on it alone, we could do that in a month. However, we chose a collaborative approach. The President of the government gave a clear announcement on February 13th about the government's intent to replace the punitive approach with a treatment-centric one. And about differentiating between criminal and victim. It considers drug users as victims, whom we treat and provide health care for. It also addressed the punitive element and the need to stop it from destroying young people’s lives.
Elyes Gharbi: Do you have anything to add, Yassmine? Please, briefly.
Yasmine Ben Feguira: I can tell you that the people are willing. There are movements out there. There’s a hashtag that says #No_to_prison. The law needs to change. The people want the law reformed.
Elyes Gharbi: Be careful not to speak on behalf of the whole people, Yassmine.
Yasmine Ben Feguira: Ok. Then, a high percentage of the people.
Elyes Gharbi: You mean, in your opinion, there are movements calling for no prison sentencing? Right. Oussama, would you like to add something to the conversation?
[Oussama Boufayed: a competitor from Gafsa]
Oussama Boufayed: Hello everyone. I heard a lot of political opinions about this topic. They all agree they’d like to get rid of consumption and the black market. But as a young person, I only hear about people getting arrested over consumption. I never hear about dealers getting caught. Can you tell me how many big dealing operations were dismantled to this day? This question is addressed to the Penitentiary and Correctional Services. I’ll add one clarification: I’m not asking about the youth who deal to their friends in their neighborhood. I’m talking about big distribution networks.
Elyes Gharbi: Right. He is talking about the big fish. We can have an answer from both of you. I’m going to start with you, Mr. Makram. Why doesn’t the executive branch show more of an interest to get the big distributors, while there is almost a targeting of small consumption?
Makram Jelassi: Precisely. One of our big goals while working on reforming Law 52 is to take a serious look at the commercial component. This is, as I said, serious work being done by the concerned institutions.
Elyes Gharbi: We’re not seeing it.
Makram Jelassi: I agree, Mr. Elyes. But it’s not a question of whether or not we’re doing the work. We’re doing a lot of work. TV talks a lot about people being arrested for consumption. We should indeed work on our communications strategy so news of bigger arrests reaches our citizens. But we are doing serious amounts of work on this topic. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of dealing and distribution cases amounts to 393 published cases taken in charge by the courts. These concern 684 people accused of commercial distribution and are not at all about small consumption. You know that our country is a passage country for drugs…
Elyes Gharbi: You can address Oussama directly, Mr. Makram. He’s the one asking a question, as a young citizen. Oussama, was Mr. Makram’s answer convincing?
Oussama Boufayed It wasn’t convincing to me.
Elyes Gharbi: Okay. But did he answer your question, at least?
Oussama Boufayed No. I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. The law should be executed fairly. Otherwise, we’ll just say that Tunisia is a weak state, unable to touch the big drug distributors, while repeatedly jaling young consumers.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Alright, Oussama. I think he answered your question somewhat. We’ll come back to you later, as we are running out of time.
Sofien Mezghich: I want to thank Oussama for his question. To answer it: Concerning dealers and gangs, we currently have approximately 4,797 inmates in our prison units that are being criminally investigated. These are either convicts, or currently in custody. I also want to emphasize that the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee -- and when I say general committee, it includes the supervising institutions, in this case the Ministry of Justice -- I want to emphasize that pardons and conditional release -- it does not easily extend to dealers and gang members. We study their files closely and we treat them case by case. Their crimes are categorized as most dangerous.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Sofien Mezghich. Let’s move on to discuss Law 52’s societal fallouts. Elyes, as for the Root of the Problem segment, we will start by hearing arguments from our young Munathara competitors, about the social aspect. Let’s invite Nour Romdhane to start. Welcome, Nour.
[Nour Romdhane: a competitor from Gabes]
Nour Romdhane: Hello. I want to tell you about Fatma. Fatma is a Tunisian mother from Gafsa who received a call in the dead of night. He said: “Hello, Ma'am. Your son’s urine analysis is dirty.” She didn’t understand what was going on. Her son was incarcerated in a prison in Kairouan; and the reason was a zatla joint. Every Tunisian mother whose son was thrown in prison experiences financial impotence, difficult logistics, powerlessness, injustice, and stigma. Let alone the bribes she must pay, so the care package reaches her son in full. Instead of waiting for her son to pass his A-levels, become a lawyer or an engineer and help her with a difficult world, Madame Fatma is waiting for her son to be released from prison. He comes home as an empty shell. We all know how society treats a young man with a criminal record [B3]. The Tunisian government is jailing young people who smoke, and releasing them as injection-drug addicts. The Tunisian government is jailing young people who smoke, and releasing them, as psychiatric patients. The government does not understand that the youth they are jailing are the country’s future. This issue is everyone’s responsibility. It’s the families, the educational institutions and the governments which alienated us, instead of providing guidance. Why do we only penalize the weakest link in all of this? Because we’re speaking about Tunisia, here.
Elyes Gharbi: Well said and well done Nour. Your time is up.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Bravo, Nour.
Elyes Gharbi: I think it’s time to see our next set of testimonials, Khouloud.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Indeed. A beautiful story but it describes the extenuating circumstances that the prisoner and his family go through. How does society perceive the Law 52 convict? Watch these testimonials and make up your own mind. We’ll be right back.
[Fade to screen. Anonymous Testimonials.]
Anonymous 1: We’re pretty successful. One of my brothers is an engineer and the other one is in engineering school. I, myself, am pursuing a Masters in Data Science. Everything was going well. But the day my mom heard I smoked, she feared that I was done.
Anonymous 2: No one in my family ever went to prison. No one except me, that is. I hear the rumors. So and so’s son was in prison. Even when you try to sit with them, they keep an eye on you. They’re always scared of you. They’re always paranoid.
Anonymous 3: I have no friends anymore. Only my mom, may she live long. She’s advanced in age. She’s the only one I can talk to. The only one I can sit with. She’s all I have left. I don’t have any friends left. Besides, no one wants to sit near me anymore.
Anonymous 1: It destroys the entire family. It doesn’t matter if it is a son or a daughter who went to prison. The entire family will be destroyed. Their expenses increase, their logistics get more complicated. The house becomes a funeral home. People offer condolences for this.
Anonymous 2: A kid said to me that when he sees me walking in the street, he goes out of his way to avoid me.
Expert: When this person, who already lived an injustice, leaves prison, all they are going to encounter in society is more injustice. It doesn’t matter that they served their time. Their debt to society should’ve been paid in full, even if they came by it unjustly. But that is not the case. They leave prison and find that they are still paying.
Elyes Gharbi: Social stigma is important to touch on. Jihed Haj Salem, You’ve worked a lot in the field, especially in underserved neighborhoods. Jihed is a professor of Sociology. Let’s talk about social stigma: let’s say I smoke a joint. I go to prison. I go through a similar experience to the one Wael lived, for instance. We’re not examining the scars that this experience leaves on me, as a person. We’re discussing society’s perception of me. The stigma that comes with this experience. You know the rumor mill here too. Everyone will know if you’ve been to prison and have a criminal record. Stigma is a sore subject and a tragedy to the people who live through it. Please proceed.
Jihed Haj Salem: First things first, I want to thank you for having me. Let’s dive into this topic. Social stigma doesn’t only impact the Law 52 convicts. It impacts all prisoners in Tunisia, notwithstanding their offense. What’s worse, this stigma is legally enforced. We have complicated laws that make it difficult to fully recover your civil rights if you have a criminal record. If you try to work or enroll in school you’ll be faced with complicated legal obstacles, pertaining to B3. It’s even difficult and sometimes impossible to travel. So the stigma impacts a lot more than Law 52 prisoners. The subject of prisons and the penitentiary institution poses deep and complicated questions about any society we live in, or want to live in. Is it a punitive society? Is it an exclusive or inclusive society? These are the questions to answer, in my opinion. Again, in my opinion, our society is, now, beyond exclusive. We have categories of people that have become fair game to violate. Wasted potential. We have 12,000 dangerous illegal immigration attempts (harka), every year. And from 2016 to 2020, and according to the ministry of justice and the statistics that Zied Ghanney mentioned earlier, 12,430 tunisian youth were incarcerated based on Law 52. We don’t even know the number of youth in S17 [restriction of movement order] who are forbidden from travel. We have youth cut off from education and culture. The unemployment rate among youth is in the hundred thousands. We have the creative potential that other societies are looking for; that they open their immigration programs to. We have this captive creative energy in our society and no creative outlets. So we are past exclusionism. We are wasting human potential and violating humans. We are violating our youth. Of course, we are wasting potential. We live in a society where 350,000 college graduates are unemployed. This is my first point. My second point…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Jihed, before you proceed to your second point, could you please tell us about the young people who are released from prison. What is their perception of all this? Do they accept how society perceives them, to some extent?
Jihed Haj Salem: Of course not. Why would they accept all the obstacles that come with this perception? Why would they accept being shunned by society and their governmental institutions? They don’t accept it, which leads to different strategies. There’s the flight strategy, which is why a lot of people chose harka. There’s also the strategy of retreat, where a person retreats within themselves or bottles themselves up. There are youth in this country, in their late twenties, who don’t leave the house unless they’re going to the cafe. Always alone. Always on their phones. They have retreated within themselves. They have no hope, no escape. Some of them become radicalized. And we’ve seen them in very well-known cases in Tunisia. Their indignation with society and government gets reversed back onto this society, which leads us to another important point.
Elyes Gharbi: The last point, Jihed, please. We would like to open up the discussion again.
Jihed Haj Salem: A last point addressing the root of the problem: In the ‘30s the national movement party was against the consumption of takrouri. I’m talking about Mohamed Matri, Chedli Kelibi, the Action section of the Constitutional Party (Alhezb Adostouri) was against the consumption of takrouri, and thought of it as mindlessness. We have an important issue in Tunisia. We have a category of people who’d rather be mindless or outside of themselves, because of the aforementioned exclusion, waste, taboos and stigma. These people want to escape, whether it is to escape Tunisia or escape their own body. They perceive their society as a prison, or their own bodies and selves as a prison. We cannot understand the widespread drug consumption, or any similar dangerous phenomena, without understanding our current reality, as a society.
Elyes Gharbi: Okay, Jihed. Let’s take some questions from the audience. You can of course address civil society and the legislative or the executive branch. Nada. Please proceed.
[Nada Hammami: a competitor from Beja]
Nada Hammami: We have a hard time separating consumption prisoners from other prisoners today because of the overcrowding problem…
Elyes Gharbi: Nada, if you please, I want to remind you that we have moved on to the social aspect of our topic.
Nada Hammami: I know. I’m going to use this as context for my question. We know the fallouts of putting a consumption prisoner in the same space with a terrorist or a murderer. I want to ask Mr. Jihed the following: What types of culture can an inmate learn and bring back to society upon their release? And let’s remember that the international humans rights associations recommend separating prisoners.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you Nada. An excellent question. So, they go in as a blank page, they interact with different types of inmates. In what state do they leave?
Jihed Haj Salem: Sociologists started working on prison in the ‘70s and since then there are a few repeated criticisms that have become classic. They have remained the same, since Michel Foucault published his book Discipline and Punishment [sic], the most important book dealing with prisons to this date. The first of those criticisms: Prisons provide a professional space for criminology. Because, first, when a number of criminals are put together in the same place, it is inevitable to create a professional space for criminology. Second, prison cuts people off from their communities and their families. Third, in the prison world -- and this is true anywhere in the world -- the return rate always beats the release rate. Fourth, nothing proves in any society, worldwide, that prison is a means of reform. You’ll find these four main criticisms in any of the sociology literature about prison. Today, we see societies closing down prisons and others heavily swapping criminal penalties for civil and social penalties. I believe that is the solution and the future. If we aren’t moving towards this, then we’re moving backwards.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Alright. Thank you.
Elyes Gharbi: Can we get another question Khouloud? Okay, we’ll be taking another question. Then, we’ll move on to comments if we still have time.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Chadha, please proceed.
[Chadha Naoui: a competitor from Gabes]
Chadha Naoui: Hi. I have a question for the government. Based on what Mr. Jihed just said, I want to ask you this: What are your plans and programs to protect our youth, as our government and the main decision-makers in Tunisia? How will you protect them against the prison culture that they’ll learn [while] on the inside? And thank you.
Elyes Gharbi: Mr Makram, please answer the question.
Makram Jelassi: The most important thing to the government is to be able to hear its youth. Maybe we haven’t done enough of that sometimes. It’s important that we set the framework for discussion. We need to hear each other. You need to know the obstacles I’m facing and I need to hear your ideas. We need to interact. We are working on and enacting multiple programs, which obviously, are not yielding the desired results. We need to understand why. We need governmental decisions and efforts to... even though I can’t represent the entire government. I just represent the Ministry of Justice. But we collaborate all the time with all government work. We’re a cohesive governmental team. We serve the people and we are citizens too. We think of our children. But…
Elyes Gharbi: Do you have anything to add, Chadha?
Chadha Naoui: What are the actual programs? I want to see what you’ve prepared to protect this country’s youth.
Makram Jelassi: Our programs are here to provide guidance to youth. We want the result to be a collaboration between all players…
Chadha Naoui: What guidance?
Makram Jelassi: Pardon me?
Chadha Naoui: What exactly is this guidance? You’re creating a time bomb and planting it in society. What are you actually doing to prevent these youth from spreading prison culture upon release?
Makram Jelassi: We’re talking about rehabilitation and reintegration programs. These programs are indeed being used. Mr. Sofien can tell us about the youth-oriented programs. However, this is not the work of one entity. The final product is our future, Tunisia’s future.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you Mr. Makram. You said that Mr. Sofien can tell us about the youth targeting programs. Mr. Sofien, please educate us. What do you have for youth after prison?
Sofien Mezghich: About the programs -- and this is a good thing. We want our youth to know that these programs exist. We evaluate them through their return rate.
Elyes Gharbi: Tell us what they are before we get to evaluating them. If I leave prison today, I mean, I served my sentence and paid my debt to society, then was released. How does the government help me? How do they guide me? Can you be more specific?
Chadha Naoui: I’m sorry. I don’t think he understood my question. I am talking about inside the prison, not outside.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We added to your question. We want to know what happens inside and outside the prison.
Sofien Mezghich: When we think about the young people who get incarcerated... and I’m not talking about consumption and drug-use-prisoners but all youth. They represent a little more than 70% of the prison population. When I say youth, they need to be a force for good. They are the future of our country. What programs do we offer them? We obviously want them to adjust their behaviour. We use academic programs, trade learning programs, training programs…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Mr. Sofien, do these programs exist? Where are they implemented? Who’s the beneficiary?
Sofien Mezghich: The youth in prisons are the beneficiaries. For example, we can invite you to watch 30 plays. Cinema is also available in prisons. That’s because we want the inmates to be well-balanced. But after they leave, no matter how much we do…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Everyone wants to comment on this.
Elyes Gharbi: Please wait, Wael.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Wael, if you please, I am going to give the mic to Oussama Bouajila to comment on the same topic. I will let you speak after. They work in the field and can maybe tell us about the benefits of these programs, Mr. Sofien.
Elyes Gharbi: Tell us about the programs that exist inside and outside of prisons. Please proceed.
Oussama Bouajila: I haven’t seen any of these programs you’re talking about, to be honest. I know that the JCC [youth festival] is in prisons around a certain time. But as far as I know, not all the inmates are allowed to watch. Since we’re talking about the social aspect, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier, Mr. Mezghich, about torture and maltreatment. You said that today, in Tunisia, the government is not implementing a torture policy. In truth, as an organization that works in the field to serve youth, by youth, we’re not very convinced that what you said is true. Article 101 which appears multiple times in the Criminal Law Review, is contradictory to the International Anti-Torture agreement, which Tunisia has signed. We used to hear urban myths about politicians and activists being tortured, pre-revolution. Well, today torture and maltreatment still exist, post-revolution. They’re not targeted at opposition leaders anymore. They’re targeted at a brand new category: they’re targeted at cannabis users, youth, the LGBTQ community, and other minorities. Going back to what Jihed Haj Salem said when he spoke about the retreat within one’s self. Today, there are multiple societal categories that have retreated within themselves and who bear the marks of such violations. On the one hand, they carry the wounds of this treatment and on the other hand, they are refused the right to health care. They’re also more prone to the effects of violent extremism. There’s also social stigma, and I believe this affects women who use injectable drugs, most specifically. These women are doubly impacted by stigma and descrimination. This is obviously dangerous, especially in the absence of targeted programs that address these issues.
Elyes Gharbi: I would like to thank you and all those who work in the field. I’m going to take a question for the MPs. They have been listening to all arguments and points of view about two big segments: the root of the problem and the social aspect. I would like a quick comment on this and I will start with Oussama Khelifi. It’s quite unbelievable that this law is still in use, after what we heard today and what we already know. Why do you think that is?
Oussama Khelifi: That’s right. If we sum up everything that’s been said tonight, we’ll come out with: There is no political will to deal with the situation. We also live -- we have to say it -- in a conservative society. We can’t deny that zatla is still a pejorative term in our society. The thoughts of someone who went to prison or uses zatla are associated with negative feelings, still. This requires a lot of work. And I would like to thank civil society for what they do, and our young people, for being aware of this issue. And here’s our role, as a legislative body: this isn’t just a law. This is an anti-constitutional law. It contradicts or is against the constitution. We’re talking about the constitution of 2014, which prioritizes freedom. There are even other laws, plenty of laws that we need to revisit and pay attention to. However, today’s politicians are engrossed in a different fight -- an ideological one -- where they’re trying to best each other at accumulating power. They don’t have time for these real issues that people care about and that could benefit our youth.
Elyes Gharbi: Yassine Ayari, would you share your beliefs and opinions with us about what you heard for the first hour of this program?
Yassine Ayari: Let me be honest: It’s not Law 52 that destroys your life. Smoking zatla is what destroys your life. If you want Law 52 to stop destroying your life, simply don’t smoke. Unlike most people here, tonight, I know prison well and I confirm that it is a person-grinding machine. I went to prison in 2014 and I know it well. It was conceived to destroy you, grind you down and reduce you to a number. I don’t blame prisons for the overcrowded cells. I blame judges. They have no problems deciding to put defendants in custody. However, the law says that we should only take away a person’s freedom under the most extreme condition. But judges here skim files if they don’t have the time to actually read them and send people into custody. I would like to conclude with this: The government makes me laugh when they say they will implement a treatment-centric approach. We can’t even treat cancer patients. We only have one center for that. A public health initiative would need financing. Do you have the money? You don’t. I’m sorry but if we decriminalize weed, today in this country, consumption will soar. Do you have the centers to treat them? You don’t. Do you have the guidance to give them? Nope. Do you have culture? No. Do you have sports? No. Then, we end up with more people consuming and a lot of money going to gangs. The solution for this country should be that the government should sell cannabis and use its revenues to treat addiction.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We’re going to get to the health, human rights and legal aspects soon. Mr. Ayari, I need to let Zied Ghanney speak. He’s been trying to get our attention for a while. Please proceed, Mr. Zied.
Zied Ghanney: I think that social stigma, as a related topic to drug use, isn't accurate anymore. We need to be talking about a gap. A gap between two worlds. One world for youth where the statistics are 122,000 cases, since 1992, and the numbers are increasing. This law is used on the powerless. This law was the reason that this person, whose name will be more easily recognized by the young people with us tonight. Emino, whose videos you can find on YouTube…
Elyes Gharbi: Zied Ghanney, I agree but do you know what the man sitting next to you just said? He said, don’t smoke and you won’t go to prison.
Zied Ghanney: I’m not trying to answer Yassine.
Elyes Gharbi: Zied, I need you to conclude so I can open the platform to our audience.
Zied Ghanney: I’m at the end of my story. What we’re saying tonight is a kind of oversimplification of this issue. Thousands of these impacted people live in our society. We couldn’t isolate this phenomenon, which means we have to organize it, somehow. We can organize it by hitting the contreband networks out there. For that, we need a general reform, which incidentally international institutions can supervise, institutions such as the UN, which already participated and with whom we have representation, within the UN. Sadly, in 2021 we’re still using outdated approaches and the gap grows. Politicians can’t move forward if the gap keeps growing. Let's not ask, then, why young people don’t vote. They don’t vote because they feel oppressed.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Zied Ghanney, tonight’s Townhall is here to answer the audience’s questions. We want to hear from the youth. Nour, go ahead please.
Nour Romdhane: Hi. I have a question for Mr. Sofien. You appeared on a Nessma TV program in 2017 to talk about a five-step plan for reform. Four years later, I am asking, where did this plan go?
Sofien Mezghich: The 5-step plan that I started began in July of 2015. It was implemented over five years, from then until late 2019. It has three elements and is born from the Ministry of Justice’s strategy. The first element is quality reinforcement...
Nour Romdhane: We know what it is about. I was asking about your progress in implementing. You should be at least halfway done. This was in 2017. We’re in 2021 now.
Sofien Mezghich: Yes. We’re in 2021 and we’ve evaluated the indicators. One of our most challenging indicators is -- what we’ve been talking about today -- overcrowded prison units. It’s based on the number of arrested people, the number of beds and the surface area of a given facility. Everyone who’s been to prison knows it’s a real problem. This even poses difficulties to our prison guards. They’re supposed to handle 50, 60 inmates but find themselves dealing with 150, 160 inmates instead. Secondly, when we talk about a penitentiary institution, we need to mention the social stigma that comes with it and not just for those prisoners who were released. For women, for example -- and need I remind you that our society says “prison is for men” -- they don’t mention women here. They get double the stigma. We want our youth to…
Nour Romdhane: So, what did you have to give women, after their release? How do you help them reintegrate into society? You’re beating around the bush. I want to hear actual solutions, clear programs. You started this in 2017…
Sofien Mezghich: Have you seen what the Penitentiary and Correctional Services are providing? This was corroborated with everyone too. The problem is in rehabilitation and integration later on. We need to get past the social stigma that the other guy mentioned.
Nour Romdhane: But how do we do that?
Sofien Mezghich: Reintegration is a collaborative task. All concerned parties need to contribute…
Khouloud Mabrouk: He doesn’t seem to have convinced you, Nour.
Sofien Mezghich: That’s why we have, in the Prison Law…
Nour Romdhane: How do we fight social stigma? My question is clear.
Sofien Mezghich: We need a Reintegration National Committee…
Khouloud Mabrouk: You don’t look convinced, Nour.
Sofien Mezghich: Collaborative because it's a big job…
Nour Romdhane: Excuse me, I don’t think you understand what I’m asking.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Excuse me, Nour, It’s clear that his answer hasn’t convinced you. But we need to move on to Chadha’s question.
Elyes Gharbi: I did hear “Reintegration National Committee.” We’ll see if that ever happens. I just wanted to say that I heard you. Please proceed, Chadha.
Chadha Naoui: I have another question for the government. After 30 years, Law 52 has shown its failure through the daily increasing number of consumption prisoners. So if this law wasn’t disincentivizing or reformative, what did you intend to do to mitigate this failure? And thank you.
Makram Jelassi: I agree with your assessment. Law 52 is no longer able to fix our drug issue. On February 13th, 2021, the President of the government addressed civil society, in a meeting organized by Lawyers without Borders, and said that we need to reform the law. The government wants to change it. There is a task force working on this at the Ministry of Justice in collaboration with the advisors to the President of the Government. They’re working on introducing a governmental initiative that tackles amending Law 52 into a well-rounded governmental initiative that treats this problem. But we’re working on it while keeping an eye and an ear on everything that has been happening around the topic. We don’t want it to be a purely governmental initiative. We want it to be a collaborative national initiative, in which every major player participated.
Chadha Naoui: Thank you. Is this a promise?
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you. This initiative is obviously important. We will bring it up again. He said the initiative is underway and we will ask him when and why -- and with what mechanisms. Don’t you worry. I promise we’ll get back to it. So far, he’s only been giving us the same answers, throughout the first hour.
Khouloud Mabrouk: I was going to add that the answers are repetitive.
Makram Jelassi: But positive.
Elyes Gharbi: Yes but they’re also quite vague. We’ll get to you, Wael. Please give us a minute. Let’s move on to the health aspect, a very important one, as well. We’ll be right back.
[Fade to screen. The Health Aspect.]
Elyes Gharbi: Let’s see some testimonials about the health dimension. Law 52 doesn’t only have social fallouts but dangerous health fallouts as well. I’m talking about turning to more dangerous substances, because of fear of imprisonment, over cannabis consumption. Let’s watch the testimonials then. We’ll be right back.
[Fade to screen. Anonymous Testimonials.]
Anonymous 1: I learnt and saw things in prison that you couldn’t even imagine. Drugs were a lot more widespread inside prison than they were in the outside world. Gradually, I started using Subutex, which I used for the first and the second time in prison. Then, I was released to a changed world. And the first thing I did was to start using this poison, aka., Subutex.
Anonymous 2: I was afraid if I started smoking again that I’d be caught and sentenced to five years. That’s what you get for a repeated offence. I looked for alternatives and found Subutex. I tried it and was hooked. I escaped zatla to fall into the claws of Subutex. I’ve been using Subutex since then. zatla was the reason that I used injection drugs. I thought I was avoiding prison. Now I have Hepatitis.
Anonymous 3: I decided I wouldn’t smoke zatla anymore. The risk of one year in prison and a 1,500 [dinar] fine wasn’t worth it. One of my friends brought over what I thought was powder. He said I have a little bit of heroine that we can use together. He had prepped it just like you’d prep powder. On the third day, I started looking for it myself. If I have enough money to buy a hit of soubia [Subutex], and [given] the choice to buy it or buy my daughter -- who’s starving at home -- some milk, I’d buy the drugs. Did I have no heart? Did I not feel?
Elyes Gharbi: He said he’d let his daughter starve to buy drugs. Did you hear that Khouloud?
Khouloud Mabrouk: I don’t know what to say. These people are in between a rock and a hard place. This is a looming danger. We’re talking about multiple co-conspirators, here, to allow the drugs to get to the inmates. Doctor Amira Khelifi is with us tonight. She’s a psychiatrist and a member of the Tunisisian Society of Addictology. Please go ahead, Amira.
Amira Khelifi: What else is there to say, after this? If your main fear is worsening the situation, post drug reform, I want ro tell you that it’s not possible. We’ve already touched rock bottom. The question is: How do we quantify or evaluate addiction? We evaluate it based on health indicators. To date, the number of injection drug users, who have contracted the AIDS virus, has doubled. It went from 3% to 6%, knowing that the syringe users number has increased. It grew at an alarming rate. The AIDS rates are either stable or decreasing in the rest of the world, whilst they almost doubled here at home. To date, 30% of syringe users, meaning one out of three, have Hepatitis B. And let’s examine a few more indicators while we’re at it. There is the problem of addicts, who use syringes and keep them for a second use. No one else needs to have used it. It could get infected and lead to arm amputation. Then, there are heart problems; and traffic accidents caused by intoxicated drivers; and let’s not forget lung cancer, caused by smoking. When we say that we cannot afford treating patients, we don’t mean it in the strictest sense. Our resources are going to the most expensive treatment for deadly diseases, related to addiction. AIDS’ drugs and Hepatitis C drugs are extremely expensive. The government has spent billions on them already. Our situation is similar to a sphere that is leaking from all sides. Every time we rush to plug one of the leaks, but no one bothers to fix the main issue.
Elyes Gharbi: What is the main issue, then? Is addiction the root of the problem?
Amira Khelifi: Addiction and drug use, yes.
Elyes Gharbi: Drug use?
Amira Khelifi: Reckless use of recreational drugs. I am qualifying the use here, because addiction looks like a ladder. On that ladder, we can find addiction. Then, we can find usage in dangerous situations, such as drinking and driving for example. That’s a reckless use.
Khouloud Mabrouk: What solution do you propose, doctor?
Amira Khelifi: We suggest an approach that is treatment- and prevention-focused, as was already said. Obviously, I mean prevention based on scientific recommendations and scientifically-proven methods that are effective.
Elyes Gharbi: Alright, then. Let’s hear the audience’s questions about the health aspect of this problem. Rafed, why don’t you go ahead.
[Rafed Rabbeh: a competitor from Tunis]
Rafed Rabbeh: I have a question for the Penitentiary and Correctional Service General Committee. A lot of people in prison use injected drugs, as we’ve seen in the testimonials and per Dr. Amira’s comments. I’m sure syringes are reused multiple times and by multiple people, especially if you add overcrowding and prisoners commingling to the picture. This leads to the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C; and obviously to addiction, as a disease, in and of itself. What’s your stance on the lack of healthcare inside the prison unit? And to what extent are you able to provide treatment inside prisons?
Sofien Mezghich: I agree with your initial assessment, where you state that prisons are overcrowded today. Even though the penitentiary system law clearly states the classification standards according to the criminal status: first-time offender or repeat offender... In our case, every prison director tries to classify, based on the number of beds and the surface area, available to them. They try to, at least, prioritize and everyone who’s been to prison knows that the priority - in bed distribution, at least - goes to those awaiting trial. I’d also like to say that healthcare is having a challenging time outside of prison, currently, let alone inside prisons. But we have been making tremendous efforts. We even have agreements with some organizations from civil society, so they can try and…
Rafed Rabbeh: Where can we see these tremendous efforts? That was my question.
Sofien Mezghich: You have seen some of them already. The health situation inside prisons is stable, even though we had to face COVID-19.
Rafed Rabbeh: People are injecting drugs inside prisons.
Sofien Mezghich: Pardon me?
Rafed Rabbeh: People are injecting themselves with drugs in jail -- and are getting AIDS.
Sofien Mezghich: No. Syringe use in prisons…
Rafed Rabbeh: Is available. You can also smoke in prison, or do anything you please, really.
Sofien Mezghich: Listen. Here’s our strategy about drug consumption inside. We’re convinced that the people you see inside are… Each prisoner I have costs more than 40 dinars per day, and this is the all-inclusive cost. If we can reduce overcrowding, we can reinvest in rehabilitation programs to brush back up on healthcare inside prisons. Our problem with in-prison heath [care] is all the doctors who get affected. They go to…
Rafed Rabbeh: I’m going to pass the mic to my friend. He has a question.
Elyes Gharbi: We’re moving on to your friend’s question. You can go ahead, Haythem.
[Haythem Ben Yahya: a competitor from Gabes]
Haythem Ben Yahya: Hello, my question is for the Tunisian Society of Addictology. Hi Dr., I feel like your organization’s position is contradictory. On the one hand, you’re against decriminalization. On the other hand, you are for treatment. Whereas criminalization means prison and prison means increased rates of illness, how are you proposing both at the same time? And I’d like to remind you that the consumer is not necessarily an addict.
Amira Khelifi: First things first. Our position is against criminalization and incarceration. You can read it on any of our mediums. It is clearly written and there is no ambiguity in it. I’m going to say it again: We are against incarceration as a penalty for cannabis consumption. We’ve never been for criminalization of cannabis consumption. We’ve also stated clearly that the punitive approach failed spectacularly in dealing with addiction. Addiction occurs when a person meets a substance at the right time. A person could only drink once a month; use occasionally, but could become addicted, post prison.
Haythem Ben Yahya: Would you clarify for me again, please. So you said that you’re not against decriminalization?
Amira Khelifi: We are, indeed, for decriminalization.
Haythem Ben Yahya: For decriminalization?
Amira Khelifi: Of course, yes.
Haythem Ben Yahya: Against incarceration?
Amira Khelifi: Indeed. We are against incarceration.
Haythem Ben Yahya: All good, then. Thank you.
Amira Khelifi: You can visit our page, if you like, and verify that it is indeed what we advocate for.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Mostafa has a question. Go ahead Mostafa.
[Mostafa Kerimi: a competitor from Tunis]
Mostafa Kerimi: I have a question for Ms. Amira, the addictology expert. I wanted to ask about cannabis’ medical potential and benefits. Notice that I didn’t say zatla, but cannabis. I mean, for example, cannabis floss, which has greatly positive effects in Ramzi Hamza’s case. Ramzi Hamza has Tourette Syndrome. It’s a rare condition that affects the nervous system. Ramzi suffered a lot. He requested to be able to medicate with cannabis floss but never received a reply. He had to request refuge in a foreign country in the end -- all because he couldn’t enjoy his right to health care. So, I ask again: What are the medical benefits of cannabis?
Amira Khelifi: I’m sorry. I didn’t get what disease your friend has.
Mostafa Kerimi: Tourette Syndrome.
Amira Khelifi: Okay. And you said you wanted to know the medical benefits of cannabis?
Mostafa Kerimi: Indeed. I want to know about the therapeutic effects that are being studied in other countries.
Amira Khelifi: There are studies that show cannabis that can, for instance, slightly alleviate pain…
Mostafa Kerimi: You mean greatly alleviate pain?
Amira Khelifi: It slightly alleviates the weight of heavy illnesses. Studies do measure indicators, by the way. Cannabis makes people with heavy illnesses, such as MS or Tourette Syndrome, subjectively feel better. I hope your friend feels better.
Mostafa Kerimi: I just wanted to confirm that cannabis has medical and therapeutic benefits. Thank you.
Elyes Gharbi: I think the doctor wants to clarify something. Please proceed.
Amira Khelifi: I just wanted to clarify that 90% of recreational drugs have medical uses and benefits. Ketamine, for instance, is used for anesthesia. Some of the most dangerous recreational drugs out there have medical uses; drugs such as, Fentanyl, Temesta, Artane, etc. Drugs with medical uses can also be used recreationally by people.
Elyes Gharbi: I think that the young man was trying to point to the possibility of using cannabis for treatment, a possibility that is a reality in some countries but one that no one has paid attention to or tried to study on a national level here.
Mostafa Kerimi: And I used my friend’s example who requested permission to farm cannabis for treatment purposes in 2019, as he had already used it in Germany and France.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you, Mostafa.
Amira Khelifi: We do have a department that takes care of these requests. Bayer manufactures the treatment you’ve mentioned. He could request that this medicine be put on the market. We’ve learnt today, post COVID, that we have scientific methods, institutions and pharmacists who can look into these cases. I don’t think this relates to Law 52.
Elyes Gharbi: We would like to hear from Ms. Sabrine, who’s here to represent ATL MST Sida, about the health aspect. Ms. Sabrine, we already discussed addictology and also a sizable amount of challenges we need to face: prison, drugs, AIDS, and other chronic diseases. What does the ATL say about this?
Sabrine Daraji: I will retell what Dr. Amira said, but [I will] simplify further. Usage of drugs through syringe injections leads to multiple diseases, including addiction, AIDS and Hepatitis C. As you must all know, Hepatitis C is a disease that impacts the liver and can cause liver cancer. These diseases impact the Ministry of Health’s budget and, therefore, the government’s budget. We need to understand that treatments for disease like AIDS and Hepatitis are subsidized by the government and provided to patients for free. To date, in Tunisia, there are 9,000 injection drug users, 10% of whom are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, if untreated. In addition, 64% of these users have Hepatitis C. We know that addiction treatments exist. Correct me if I’m wrong, Dr. Amira, the WHO [World Health Organization] classifies Methadone as essential in treating injection drug users. However, Tunisia classifies Methadone as a recreational drug. I just want to understand what is going on. Why is Methadone still not allowed here? I would like to know why we’re not treating addiction. We do not have any policies, programs, initiatives to treat addiction. We don’t even have any treatment centres in Tunisia. We also have no clear solution for this group of people, who are deeply impacted by Law 52. They try to escape urine tests and prison, so they get addicted to worse drugs that cause various diseases.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Sabrine. Please answer, Doctor.
Amira Khelifi: I’ve been asking the same question. I don’t know why they don’t give us addiction treatments. I mean, we’re buying much more expensive drugs. So, I don’t understand. I don’t get why the international entities that help us with this kind of thing do not give us addiction treatments, either.
Khouloud Mabrouk: What was the answer to your question?
Amira Khelifi: We’re working on a circular and waiting on some people’s signatures. That’s because when you become an addict, you lose your right to be human. Human rights don’t apply anymore. Withdrawal pain is atrocious but no one cares if people recovering from drug use are suffering. They can keep suffering until whomever decides to sign the piece of paper gets you treatments.
Elyes Gharbi: To sum up, Khouloud, we have some challenges here. We have a root problem, a social problem, a health problem, a classification problem concerning the tables within the law itself, and we’ve got difficulties in buying and providing treatment to people who need it. I would like to remind our viewers that we are not here to encourage recreational drug use. We are here to talk about Law 52. I think it is the consensus today that the punitive approach did not lead to any positive results. Let’s go to the next segment.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We were supposed to open the discussion to the audience and hear their questions but we went over time. I apologize but we do need to move on to the legal and humanitarian aspects.
[Fade to screen. The Legal and Humanitarian Aspects]
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you for watching a special episode from the series Zaama Townhall. We’ve been discussing Law 52 with youth, civil society, decision-makers and experts. This discussion made a comeback, recently, after three young men in Kef were sentenced to 30 years. The incident was named “The Case of 30 Years.” We know that the sentence was appealed last Tuesday. The appeal changed the sentence to one year for one of the young men and released the two others. Why is there a possibility to get a three- year sentence for consumption? And why can it be appealed to one year, within two weeks? We asked the lawyer Molka Bouderbela, from the Youth of El Kef Defense Committee, the same questions.
[Fade to screen. Molka Bouderbala, Lawyer for the Youth of El Kef Defense Committee]
Molka Bouderbala: The ruling that came from the court of first instance was 90% legal. Law 52 of 1992 limits judges.This law tells a judge that if one smokes in a mosque, stadium, waterport, airport, youth center, or public park, then they should get an aggravated penalty. The penalty of arrest evolves to five years from one, originally. The penalty for consumption evolves to five years from one as well. That’s ten years right there. Then there’s the penalty from Article 7, which concerns dedicating a place for consumption and or distribution, anc can range from ten to 20 years. They were sentenced to 20 years for this one for the grand total of 30 years in prison. Thus ruled the Court of First Instance and [for] criminal cases. They were sentenced to 30 years, which takes into consideration that they were on the premises of municipal grounds, more specifically in the night guards' lodgings, which is considered official government housing. The court considered the lodgings part of the stadium, whether we agreed or not. There was one thing that made a splash, besides the 30-year sentence -- which did too. We secured a document from the regional Committee of Youth and Sports in El Kef. It was addressed to the presiding judge at the court of appeals and it stated that the municipal stadium, Nour Eddine ben Jilela, located in El Kef, did not have a validity or qualification certificate. This was the alleged scene of the crime. So, naturally, this document helped us lift the aggravated penalty requirement and Article 11. The defense committee insisted greatly on obtaining this document. We weren’t going to go to court without it.
Elyes Gharbi: Within the framework of Law 52 and post 2017 amendments, a 30-year sentence was issued, still. As we were still reeling from the shock, another ruling, 17 years this time, was issued as well. So, we asked ourselves: weren’t 2017’s amendments introduced to allow judges to use lighter penalties and never find ourselves back here, again? Venerable Judge Omar Oueslati, why are we still in the same spot?
Omar Wesleti: Thank you. I’ve been following the entire discussion with great interest. Let’s address the applications of Law 52, or the applications of any law, for that matter. You’ll have different judges and different approaches. Most judges apply different approaches that are not compatible with society’s evolution and with the new generations. Said generation is focused on rights and freedoms and is in no way compatible with our outdated judicial system; this tired, tired judiciary that is blindly and mechanically applying an outdated criminal system. Unfortunately, it leads us to rulings that turn a blind eye to the accused’s circumstances and realities. In the instance that was mentioned in the story, the judge did not seek to know whether there was actually a functioning stadium before he issued a 20 year sentence, let alone think about why the legislature criminalized consumption in 1992. You’d think he’d try to put the citation in a real context; to try and understand it. For example, if the legislative criminalized smoking in stadiums in 1992, they must’ve been thinking about the public and the athletes at an active game and [how] smoking would impact them. This stadium was vacant and hasn’t been in use. Therefore, if we go back to the judge’s approach, we need to understand that we were entrusted with a sacred mission to protect people’s freedoms and rights under the new constitution of 2014. We need to change our culture and root this idea deep in ourselves. Doesn’t this make it unacceptable to sentence a person to 30 years when they are not a criminal? I’ll say it again: this man who was convicted for consumption is not a criminal. This was a personal choice, even though I consider it -- and society considers it -- wrong.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Excuse me, Honorable Judge. I have to interrupt you because he [gesturing] is here with us. He came to us from El Kef to share his story. Welcome Faycel.
Omar Wesleti: If you please, I would just like to finish my idea first.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Go ahead.
Omar Wesleti: I just wanted to say that I am not encouraging cannabis consumption. It doesn’t change the fact that consumption is a personal choice, just like traveling, working, drinking, etc.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Honorable Judge. Faycel, we’d like to hear your testimonial. Can you remove your mask so we can hear you? Please tell us about your experience in prison. How did you feel about the first verdict? You’re the night guard at the stadium. Is that correct? Use the mic so we can hear you.
Faycel Jbebli: Yes. That’s me. I’m the night guard and I was sentenced to 30 years. I think I didn’t walk for a month after that. 30 years! That's the longest prison sentence anyone has ever gotten in Tunisia. I went home after my release to find that my mom had an aneurysm. My dad could barely move. He was 6 thousand dinars in debt after what happened to me. I stopped working. Prison destroyed my life. My mom cannot walk straight anymore. I don’t know what else to say about this law. What more do you want me to say?
Elyes Gharbi: Okay, Faycel. We’d like to understand how everything went down. How were you arrested? Were you arrested together?
Faycel Jbebli: We were arrested, all six of us, at the same time.
Elyes Gharbi: Did they tell you what they were arresting you for when they did?
Faycel Jbebli: We were just hanging out. We had no idea what was going on when they showed up past 11pm. They said they found the drugs. I had no idea what they were talking about. Then they beat up one of the men. That one they sent home because they couldn’t have booked him after they beat him up. If they had booked him, maybe we would’ve all gone home that night.
Elyes Gharbi: Did they test your urine?
Faycel Jbebli: They hadn’t yet. They took us to jail first and investigated us for days. They’ d take us to the station then bring us back to jail. After the third day of investigation, they brought us back to jail. Then, we heard that we were investigated under general charges. Do you know what that means? We were investigated for everything, except farming. It would’ve been 100 years in prison.
Elyes Gharbi: So you were charged with consumption, and dedicating the space to drug use with aggravating circumstances?
Faycel Jbebli: At the beginning, we were looking at much more than that. We were looking at the possibility of 100 [years] in prison. Then, they went down to 30 years under the charges you mentioned.
Elyes Gharbi: I’m going to open up the discussion. Thank you for sharing, Faycel. Here’s my question: Did anything change after the 2017 amendments to the law?
Omar Wesleti: Ghazi and I paid close attention to the amendments of 2017. We also asked that they look at law 53. We were worried that they would come up with a worse law than 52. At the time, there were many proposals; some about the accused who should go through a regional and a national committee. So we suggested they stop with that line of thought and that they take into consideration the circumstances of the youth who choose this path. You can consider it the right or the wrong path but that’s a personal choice and that’s the path that this person chose. We suggested 53, which would free judges to hand out lighter penalties. We didn’t know how dangerous it would be then. They adopted the part of 53 that states that if the offender repeats within five years, they get a 5-year sentence. So first time offenders did get mitigating circumstances for the first offense. But this amendment did not yield the expected results. It didn’t work because judges themselves are a part of the conservative society that eyes zatla consumers conservatively; and that conservative perception colors their rulings. In the end, judges are supposed to examine their ruling within a public opinion framework. They think that they’re appointed to protect the people’s way of life…
Elyes Gharbi: Alright, Honorable Judge. All we want to know is the difference between Law 52 from 1992 and Law 52 -- the 2017 version. Did anything change to give judges malleability in dealing with accusations?
Omar Wesleti: I believe that malleability was added. I just believe that the judicial approach is still light years away from prioritizing these kids’ rights and freedoms. Judges really think that a judge needs to appoint themselves as the protector of a particular idea of society that has to apply the same to everyone.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Omar Ouasleti. We will now hear from Lamine Belghazi, from Lawyers Without Borders. Lamine, Lawyers Without Borders has crafted a report about Law 52. Would you like to tell us about it?
Lamine Benghazi: Thank you, Khouloud. I would love to and I will also try to answer Elyes’ question. There’s definitely a version of the story out there that claims the 2017 reform changed things for the better and that rarely do people end up in prison because of a zatla joint anymore. However, this is a small part of a longer, more complicated story. For one, it ignores a very important piece of information. Prisons, in Tunisia, are overflowing with people still awaiting trial. They represent 60% of all prisoners. Unfortunately, our system believes that people are guilty until proven innocent and not the other way around. Let’s talk specifically about Law 52. Based on the Penitentiary and Correctional Services General Committee’s own statistics, 20% of the people arrested in 2017-- meaning 2,729 people out of 11,900 -- were arrested in relation to recreational drugs. This number is increasing steadily every year. There certainly are a number of dealers and distributors within this statistic. However, we do not define the differences between a user and a distributor in Tunisian law. Law 52 is far from clear about this. Is it the quantity of drugs in their position? Is it the way they look? Is it because they have a lot of money on them? What amount of money is suspicious? No one can answer these questions, which unfortunately opens up the possibility for wrongful accusations of distribution. We co-published a report about Law 52, with our partners, whom I want to greet, as they’re with us in the studio, tonight. In this report, we tried to profile the person most likely to be arrested because of this law. Let me clarify that we’re talking about a profile for those who are routinely arrested for consumption -- and not just cannabis consumers -- at large. We discovered that prisoner 52 is a male in 99% of the cases. He is 26 years old on average, and is either unemployed or a day laborer. He gets accosted by the police on the street and is sometimes searched with unnecessary force or mistreatment. The way he looks and presents himself doesn’t usually help his case. The police would, in most cases, keep him in custody; in some cases, 96 hours over the legal time while awaiting his test results. The aforementioned test is frequently administered, in subpar, undignified conditions that can sometimes qualify as torture. Again, the presumption of innocence is reversed in our system. Those who can’t take the test because of stress or fear are presumed guilty and retained in custody in 96% of the cases. Prisoner 52 then awaits his trial in prison for 6 to 12 months at which time he meets his lawyer for the first time. Let’s remind the viewer that we are talking about people who aren’t criminals and do not pose a threat to society. Let’s also remember that in Tunisia, ten years post revolution, we have a 30 year old law -- which was passed to help a dictator save face, after an international drug case convicted his brother -- that was not conceived to serve or protect the people; but that routinely destroys thousands of citizens’ lives and families…
Elyes Gharbi: Could you please close?
Lamine Belghazi: I’ll be done in a minute, Elyes. Law 52 impacts the most vulnerable, worse than others. It’s filling our prisons. And where that doesn’t create a den of corruption, it costs the government a lot of resources while widening the economic and societal gaps.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you. The testimonials in this report will support your statements. The reportage will also portray the existing corruption among police officers and other players, linked to Law 52. Let’s watch.
[Fade to Screen. Anonymous Testimonials]
Anonymous 1: I was going home, after school, when a police motorcycle pulled me over. Or should I say, they dramatically blocked the road, walked towards me, and knocked on my window, as if I were some sort of criminal. We put our hands up right when we saw their faces. They started the search operation. [They] kept telling us to keep our hands up in the air. Then, one of them found a tiny joint and asked his colleague for the handcuffs. He asked me what neighborhood I was from and I answered. He asked me if I knew a guy and I said that we were friends. This was a friend of ours, who’s a cop but also a smoker, like us. He said, should I call him? I said yes. He passed the phone to me and our friend said “I’ll guarantee you can pay him 200 dinars tomorrow, so you can come home today.” And that is exactly what happened. I went home. Then, the cop, who talked to my friend on the phone, showed up in our neighborhood cafe to collect his money. [He] had a coffee with us. [He] advised us not to keep blunts in our cars; then, he left like nothing ever happened.
Anonymous 2: I was with a friend when they pulled us over. They started asking us questions, then [they] searched us. They found a blunt in her phone case. He told her he won’t let this go. They put her in the car and told me she was done for before they drove off. They drove in circles and came back to say that they weren’t gonna book her and that it was all a joke. I found out they took 250 dinars when I talked to her later.
Anonymous 3: I was rolling a joint in my car when I looked up and there they were. They left their car to search mine. He only found the bit of zatla that I was rolling. They said they were going to arrest me. So, I asked if there was another way. So I gave them their bribe and they left. I was very naive at the time. I told them I’d give them a thousand dinars and they were beside themselves with joy. Luckily, I had a friend with me, who told me that it was too much. I ended up giving them 500.
Elyes Gharbi: Welcome back and thank you for watching Zaama Townhall. Wael, we heard their testimonials. We know there are networks akin to gangs within the police force and sometimes in the courts too. We know they are corrupt and organized and they take bribes to “forget they saw anything.” Wael, did you have a similar experience?
Wael Zarrouk: I know it wasn’t just me. A lot of people lived this experience. Some will ask you for money on the spot. Meaning, the unit that caught you will drive you around in circles before they inform the prosecutor of your arrest. They ask you to call your friends and see how much money you can put together in that short time. We all know this.They asked me for a huge sum because they had already notified the prosecutor’s office of my arrest. Therefore, they asked for 30,000 so they could split with all the parties.I’d like to talk about something else for a second, I want to tell Yassine, who said that Law 52 doesn’t send you to prison but smoking a joint does, that his statement is incorrect. Smoking is a personal choice.
Elyes Gharbi: Alright. I think he heard that. Could you continue with your testimonial, please?
Khouloud Mabrouk: How does testing happen?
Wael Zarrouk: Six people take you into a room -- if you don’t go right away. They beat you, they berate you and threaten you, they cuss you out, the whole time they’re trying to force you to do it. I tried to tell them that I couldn’t go [to administer a urine test] in those conditions, with all of them watching. That’s when they ask if you want to call your family because it’s your chance to give them something so they can replace the urine for the test.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Do they bring in someone who takes the test?
Wael Zarrouk: Of course they bring in someone -- from the hospital. They couldn’t do it themselves if they wanted to because they all use zatla themselves. I just have one question to follow. It seems we all agree that this law needs to be reformed; that the user is not a criminal; and that prison isn’t the answer. Why don’t we stop using Article 4, while waiting for the new bill or maybe even cannabis legalization? So what are we waiting for?
Elyes Gharbi: We’ll discuss the solution in a minute. Judge, if you want to comment I can give you one minute.
Omar Wesleti: I want to address the government’s criminal policy. Why doesn't your criminal policy intervene to stop this when you’re watching thousands of youth being thrown in prison? Why are we investigating and testing people in miserable conditions that violate the body and human dignity? How are we taking proof of guilt from people’s bodies? It’s unacceptable to be in a country that speaks of democracy and human rights, that then forcibly collects proof of people’s guilt from their own bodies. If we actually want to protect Human Rights, let’s then admit that this, in and of itself, is a crime.
Elyes Gharbi: I have something I need to say, to avoid getting accused of overgeneralization later. Let me reiterate that we are not overgeneralizing here. We’re not talking about all police officers and we’re not targeting anyone in particular. We’re just dissecting a witness’ lived experience that he shared with us as a private citizen. There’s good and bad in every place and, of course, the law is subjective -- which can also be dangerous.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Well put, Elyes. He was talking about his own experience. Let’s take some questions. Where are you, Oumaima? Let’s start with your question.
[Oumaima Hajjem: a competitor from Sfax]
Oumaima Hajjem: My question is for the MPs who are here with us today. On 03/04/2021, you had a parliamentary session to discuss the proposals for amending Law 52. A lot of MPs did not show any interest in the topic and were only present physically. We still don’t know some parties' stances on Law 52. I want to know if there are any take-aways from this three-hour session. Did you agree on anything? Because we are very confused.
Elyes Gharbi: Zied, Oussama, please decide amongst yourselves who is going to answer this question.
Zied Ghanney: MPs cannot agree on anything. That’s impossible.
Oussama Khelifi: I’d like to recognize my colleagues Fares Blal, Jawhar Mghirbi and anyone else who was behind this initiative and the parliament session the young lady mentioned. We participated, shared our proposals and discussed them with others. We mainly discussed the articles we want to amend, which are Articles 4, 7 and 19. We can discuss these later, if you will. The priority, of course, is the removal of incarceration as a penalty. In addition, we proposed alternate penalties, which are: a fine of no more than one thousand dinars -- because we all know that a penalty of one thousand and up will go on your criminal record, which, in turn, leads to multiple challenges in a youth’s life. Another alternate penalty is community service. But we definitely want to remove the penalty of incarceration, especially after all we heard here today. We have a corrupt judicial system, an outdated prison system, and outdated political and health systems. I believe real change can only come from your generation, since all of our systems do not understand what’s at stake.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you Oussama Khelifi. Let’s hear Nour’s question.
Nour Romdhane: Mr. Khelifi, you’re trying to convince us that you are for alternate penalties, such as fines. But this means one thing. You’re implying that cannabis users are criminals and not addicts, like you said in your opening argument…
Oussama Khelifi: In case of repeat offenders, yes. We need to understand that we’re talking about a poison that threatens people’s health. And in the absence of addiction treatment systems…
Nour Romdhane: I’m sorry to interrupt but let me tell you that we’re not the ones who need to find a solution. Create a treatment system. You were elected to represent the people. Where were you when the Ministry of Health said they didn’t have the budget to implement a treatment policy in 2017? What are the alternate solutions?
Oussama Khelifi: We are in agreement. Listen. We decided to reform and we crafted a proposal. We were the first to do anything; to bring this to parliament and force the government into the conversation. But, Nour, let me finish…
Nour Romdhane: I’m sorry. I just have one statistic to add. Maybe Mr. Sofien can correct or confirm. According to what he said, an inmate costs the government 40 dinars per day. What does that make in a year? Over 55 million dinars. How come you don’t have the budget for addiction treatment?
Oussama Khelifi: We’re spending more than that on people who are merely in precautionary custody. This is an outdated law that most of the world discarded. 60% of inmates are in precautionary custody and we’re spending money on an outdated prison system to keep sending them in, where people are sleeping on the floor. We did two things: we took the soft drug, zatla out of Table B [the classification for hard drugs].
Nour Romdhane: Mr. MP, you’re using examples of developed countries’ practices as best practices. But you forget that these countries decriminalized cannabis use. They perceive users as addicts and not criminals that deserve to be fined. What’s one supposed to do if one doesn’t have a thousand dinars, Sir?
Oussama Khelifi: There are alternate penalties...
Nour Romdhane: What alternate penalties? The only one I know of was proposed by Hssouna Nasfi and that’s community service. But we don’t have any legal frameworks that explains or organizes the use of that penalty.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Nour, everyone needs to participate in this discussion. Let’s hear from Mohamed.
Mohamed Ben Hamida: Hello. My question is for the MPs, particularly Yassine Ayari. I would like to remind you that we live in a country where we revolted against the government. Had the revolution failed, we would’ve all been branded terrorists. I know you believe in the rule of law and think users are at fault but we’re the ones who revolted to get you to your seat. And we still have a law that violates people's bodies and takes away their dignity. If you’re not going to sign off on any corrective laws, which is okay by me, did you or your party suggest any alternatives? Meaning radical solutions like legalization, for instance.
Yassine Ayari: I agree that urine testing, the way we do it, can be classified as torture. Besides, taking proof of guilt from the accused’s body is unacceptable and needs to stop. I agree with you one thousand percent. The fact that we broke the law to revolt, ten years ago, does not mean that we don’t have to respect the rule of law today. Your analogy doesn’t stand if we replace cannabis use with running a red light.
Mohamed Ben Hamida: That is not what I was saying and I can find flaws in your reasoning too. A lot of us are against the penalty of incarceration but that doesn’t mean that I am asking you to release terrorists from jail, for example. Those are two different things, just like cannabis use and running a red light are two different things.
Elyes Gharbi: Let him answer you. We need to move on the solutions segment after this.
Yassine Ayari: Having broken the law for revolutionary purposes does not sanction breaking the law in times of peace. The law is the law. If we don’t like it, we need to change it through the proper channels.
Mohamed Ben Hamida: So change it!
Yassine Ayari: I can work with that. Let me tell you where we stand. We are not for corrective measures or patchwork laws. We believe that in a country where there is no addiction treatment, no culture and no education, cannabis use will soar through the roof if we depenalized it. It would be a time bomb. Moreover, if cannabis use increases, all that money will go to gangs, who are pushing for decriminalization, by the way. We are, currently, working on a proposal that has the government itself sell cannabis and uses the proceeds to treat addiction.
Mohamed Ben Hamida: So you actually support legalizing it?
Elyes Gharbi: Yassine Ayari advocates for a National Agency for Cannabis.
Yassine Ayari: Yes. It would sell it and pour the proceeds into health care. We have zero addiction treatment centers in Tunisia. So yes! We propose the government sells it and sells a clean product, unlike what happens on the market, today…
Elyes Gharbi: These are the solutions, Mr. Ayari. I’m only interrupting to tell you that we are going to discuss solutions and proposals right now as the last segment of our program.
[Fade to screen: Proposed Solutions]
Elyes Gharbi: There’s no need for grabbing, Mr. Ghanney. I will give you the mic in a minute. It’s Mohamed’s turn to talk. You have 99 seconds.
Mohamed Ben Hmida: Hello and welcome everyone. I think we all saw today that the penal approach failed at fighting addiction, consumption and the black market. I believe it’s high time we examined alternate approaches that have proven to be successful. As far as we are concerned, the first solution is to stop considering cannabis consumers as criminals and to make reparations for the injustices they endured because of this law. Secondly, we want to legalize cannabis, which will enable us to eradicate zatla -- that is, cannabis mixed with all sorts of poisons -- and to get rid of the things that destroyed people's lives. When we examine other countries’ experiences, we find that the ones that legalized cannabis also succeeded at decreasing consumption and fighting illegal distribution. I would like to remind everyone that when we mention legalization, we don’t just mean for recreational purposes. We’re also talking about cannabis, as medicine, fuel, textiles, and other benefits. We have shared these solutions with you [officials], many a time, just to hit a wall of excuses, indifference, or unwillingness. All we heard back was: “Who are you?,” “I don’t have time for this,” “There’s no budget,” “The people are opposed.” We’ve been hearing these excuses for 30 years now, and we’re hoping things are going to change because we are exhausted. Who are we? We are Rania Amdouni. We are your outdated laws’ prisoners. We are young activists and the youth who are still in prison.
Khouloud Mabrouk: We have opened the last topic of discussion and I would like to hear from Zied Ghanney. The floor is yours. Please tell us what solutions you’re proposing.
Zied Ghanney: Speaking of solutions, we need to mention the people who have been seriously working at the heart of the issue for years, in Tunisia: The Cannabis Liberation Front, RootsTV, Hezb Al Warqa, “On va légaliser pour vous,” who are young activists. You mentioned our approach. I’m sure you know that there is a bill, containing 39 articles -- currently being discussed in parliament -- that organize cannabis use. I said it before. If you can’t isolate this issue, organize it. Lawyers Without Borders participated in drafting this bill that’s currently in discussion. Know that society and youth can draft bills into law. It is not my responsibility, as a representative, to take a pen and paper and draft laws. People need to participate. Anyways, this bill is in its final stages right now. We have been working on it for 10 months. In the meantime, the 30-year sentence incident happened and now the government is trying to appease the people, which is a natural political response. But I would like to emphasize that we cannot amend a law that is obsolete.
Khouloud Mabrouk: So what do you propose?
Zied Ghanney: Put simply for our viewers, the solution is to legally and socially organize this phenomenon. Incidentally, the WHO advised the UN to vote for removing cannabis from table 4, which is the international equivalent of Table B in Tunisia. If we do this, the government can have an active role in [organizing] it. The Ministry of Health can have an active role too. We can monitor consumption. We can monitor the product. We can protect the public’s health. We’re talking here about the welfare state, the protective state, and not the state that throws its people in prison.
Elyes Gharbi: Alright. I did not know that Zied Ghanney and Yassine Ayari agreed on something. You’re both talking about a governmental institution in charge of cannabis. We’re going to open the discussion to our last segment. Again, we are talking about solutions. Nada, the floor is yours.
Nour Romdhane: Nour…
Elyes Gharbi: Sorry, Nour. Please, go ahead.
Nour Romdhane: Before I talk about the catastrophe that is Law 52 and how to solve it, I would like to discuss the transgressions that we’ve heard about today, Mr. Makram Jelassi. I’m talking about cases of…
Elyes Gharbi: We need to hear solutions.
Nour Romdhane: What I am saying concerns the solutions. We demand solutions for the odious conditions under which people are arrested and treated in prison. Secondly, we demand reparations for all former prisoners. What do you do to help them after their release? Thirdly…
Elyes Gharbi: Please, Nour. You’ve had the chance to talk today. Please don’t go overtime. Where’s Nada? Yes. Nada, what do you have to say about the solutions.
Nada Hammami: I would rather see laws that protect me and all Tunisian citizens. All I see are laws that harm me and destroy many a young person’s life. Nevermind. I will give you solutions. We demand a clear and detailed law that only penalizes consumption in special cases. And even that penalty should be limited to community service. That way we can strike a balance between allowing youth their personal freedoms and keeping the fabric of society intact.
Elyes Gharbi: Ok. Let’s move on to Rafed. Rafed, the floor is yours.
Rafed Riah: [Microphone malfunction] ...quality. Monitoring the age of cannabis consumers, and eradicating the black market.
Elyes Gharbi: Who else wants to add something? Wisal, the floor is yours.
Wissal Abboud: What Mr. Yassine Ayari said was incorrect. Young people in Tunisia do not consume cannabis to enjoy getting high. We need to address the underlying reasons for consumption. We need to fix those. I’m talking about widespread poverty, unemployment, etc. It is perfectly natural that affected young people want to escape their dire circumstances, which leads them to things like cannabis. How can you blame them for that? How could you fine them and throw them in jail for it? That’s not the answer. We need to fix the issue from the bottom up.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you, Wissal. We’re going to go back to the virtual audience’s vote to see if… I will let you speak. We’ll get to discuss some more. Please. Can we have order? We informed you, at the beginning, that we are limited by time. I can’t let everyone speak. Let’s go to the vote to see if it changed. We asked you to tell us if you were for or against decriminalizing cannabis consumption. 83% say they are for decriminalizing cannabis consumption. 17% are against decriminalizing cannabis consumption. Let’s go to the pledge by the MPs. You can support your position, but…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Elyes, I am asking the government’s representative to also pledge, along with the MPs, if he pleases.
Elyes Gharbi: Does the government pledge to amend this law within a year? You saw that 83% are for it. Is a year enough time for the government to amend the law? We do not care whether you do it collaboratively or not. What’s important is that the law is amended.
Makram Jelassi: The President of the Government did issue a political statement on February 13th, 2021. The statement does make the pledge and this is not hot air. It’s a serious pledge. He studied the issue well and decided that we weren’t just going to give the law a lifting. We’re actually looking at a well-rounded law that also addresses the health aspect in…
Elyes Gharbi: Do you pledge to pass this well-rounded law, within a year ?
Khouloud Mabrouk: Mr. Jelassi, we can make it simple. If you will take this pledge, please raise your hand. We’re going to ask the MPs to do the same thing.
Makram Jelassi: We are working on it.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Will you pledge or not?
[Makrem Jelassi raises hand]
Khouloud Mabrouk: Will we see results within a year?
Makram Jelassi: Maybe even less, I pledge it.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Will you raise your hand?
Makram Jelassi: [Raises hand] naturally.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you very much, Sir. How about the MPs? I will ask you the same question: will you vote to remove the penalty of incarceration for cannabis consumption before the end of the current parliament cycle? Whomever will take the pledge…
Oussama Khelifi: Can I say something quickly?
Khouloud Mabrouk: Tell me first if you’ll take the pledge.
Oussama Khelifi: I’d like to clear up something first. We’re not just giving empathy promises. We already pledged and drafted a proposal. I invite you all to read it and let us know if you have suggestions, as well.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Then, you’ll have no problem raising your hand, Oussama Khelifi?
Oussama Khelifi: No problem. We do take the pledge. [Shows documents. Raises hand]
Khouloud Mabrouk: See? That was easy.
Elyes Gharbi: How about you, Zied Ghanney?
Zied Ghanney: Do you just want a pledge to decriminalize consumption? Don’t you want a better promise?
Elyes Gharbi: Let’s start with decriminalization. That’s enough for now. Do you pledge to decriminalize consumption?
Zied Ghanney: Decriminalization alone doesn’t make sense. We need a holistic approach. If we decriminalize consumption we need to organize it. We’re talking about the government’s role and national security. In any case, I do pledge -- and I will raise my hand to support it -- [raises hand] that I will submit proposals to legalize and organize cannabis use.
Elyes Gharbi: So, as far as you’re concerned, it goes without saying that eliminating the prison penalty will be part of that?
Zied Ghanney: They go hand in hand.
Elyes Gharbi: Are you willing to pledge that you’ll do what you said.
Zied Ghanney: I am. [Raises hand]
Khouloud Mabrouk: How about you Yassine Ayari?
Yassine Ayari: It would be catastrophic to stop at decriminalizing consumption. We can’t let cannabis use soar without being able to treat addiction.
Elyes Gharbi: How about the prison penalty?
Yassine Ayari: I will not have it. This is an incomplete solution that will be a time bomb. Where will cannabis money go? I’m sorry but I will not vote for decriminalization alone. And whomever does would be hurting our country’s interests. I’m working on having the state sell it and organize its use and I will not settle for half-finished solutions. The proceeds from selling cannabis should go to treating addiction.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Ok, so Yassine Ayari won’t take the pledge but how about you, Zied Ghanney, Oussama Khelifi?
[Both raise hands]
Oussama Khelifi: We do pledge to come up with a holistic solution that doesn’t only address decriminalization but the entire issue.
Khouloud Mabrouk: That’s clear.
Elyes Gharbi: We wanted to simplify things and stop at decriminalizing consumption and abolishing the prison penalty.
Oussama Khelifi: Mr. Yassine was right when he said that we need to agree on the whole issue but I’m fine taking the pledge.
Elyes Gharbi: Ok. Did you raise your hand when we mentioned abolishing the prison penalty?
Yassine Ayari: Tunisia is not a country where we can lift that penalty. We are not a good candidate for depenalization. The countries who did decriminalize consumption have robust healthcare. They could do it without fearing the fallouts. We don’t, so we should go for legalization over decriminalization.
Elyes Gharbi: There’s a little bit of paranoia around abolishing the prison penalty for consumption, as you can see. Ghazi, the floor is yours.
Ghazi Mrabet: Good. Let’s talk about solutions. I have a clear plan that I would like to share with the government representative and the MPs. We can implement it fast if there’s actual political will to do so. On this day, March 16th the President of the Government meets the Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interior, and the President of the Upper Judiciary Committee. He asks that we stop arresting people, as part of the government’s criminal policy; that we keep investigating but stop arresting people. This is definitely possible. On March 23rd, the President of the Government convenes a ministerial session where they vote and agree on an amendment to the 4 articles -- that allow the use of the prison penalty -- which turns the penalty for consumption into a symbolic fine. The same day, the bill is sent to Parliament, where it quickly passes through the Health Committee, the Freedom Committee and the General Legislative Committee. Then, it is subjected to a vote at the General Assembly. All this could take two or three weeks and result in abolishing the prison penalty. On March 20th, The President of the Republic grants a special presidential pardon to the convicts, who received their definitive sentence with no possibility to appeal. This would be what the government does. Now, for civil societies’ role. All the activists, who have been working on this issue -- Hezb Al Warqa, the political parties that crafted amendment proposals and even the parties who didn’t -- gather in the next 10 days. We work on this until the end of the current parliamentary cycle. We discuss farming, production, and any other topics relating to cannabis. And we come up with a definitive solution. Finally, and after this holistic bill is voted into law, parliament issues a general amnesty that extends to every person who was imprisoned, since the law was enacted in 1992. We make reparations by giving them their civil rights back.
Elyes Gharbi: There you go. You have a primary contact and you can talk to him directly…
Khouloud Mabrouk: Excuse me, I have a mission that I would like to tell you about. Faycal’s mom is here with him. Her name is Rachida. In fact, a lot of moms are watching tonight. We also want to greet Wael’s mom, whom we know is watching.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Excuse me, please. I need to get a clear pledge from the MPs, for theirs and their mothers’ sakes. The ball is in your camp. Do you pledge to vote to abolish the prison penalty, before the end of the current parliamentary cycle?
Elyes Gharbi: Put your hand up if you do.
Oussama Khelifi: We have already proposed that and we’ll defend it and of course vote for it.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Then, raise your hand, Mr. Oussama.
[Oussama Khelifi and Zied Ghanney raise hands]
Khouloud Mabrouk: How about you, Yassine Ayari?
Yassine Ayari: I don’t agree. Gangs are pushing for lifting the prison sentence. They don’t want legalization, which is the bane of their existence.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you all. Thank you, Mr. Government Representative, for your pledge today.
Khouloud Mabrouk: I’m sorry but we’re out of time.
Elyes Gharbi: Thus, we conclude our program. Thank you for watching. We all understand that this is a fraught subject. We know that it is high time we amended Law52. Ghazi suggested that, in two to three weeks, we could freeze prison penalties and free the prisoners, following a legislative amnesty. Some of the PMs also took the pledge to see similar efforts through. Thank you. This was Townhall, Where we heard our youths’ questions. We will see you again. Thank you, Khouloud and all our guests.
Khouloud Mabrouk: Thank you, Elyes. We apologize to the participants who didn’t get a chance to speak, or say everything they wanted to say tonight. Thank you and goodnight.
Elyes Gharbi: Thank you. Stay safe, and goodbye.
[End of Transcript]