The names of those enjoying the presidential pardon are decided by the president himself, with an appointed Minister of Justice.
A large number of these convicts are held on drug-related offences, as result of Tunisia’s tough drug laws; statistics from December 2015 show 7,451 people currently in Tunisian prisons on drug charges.
During National Revolution Day, on January 14, President Beji Caid Essbesi, elected in 2014 and a founder of the liberal Nidaa Tounes party took the opportunity to grant pardons to around 1,609 prisoners. 1,178 have already been freed, including 885 convicted of drug consumption charges.
Tunisian drugs legislation: Law 52
Many of them were sentenced under Law 52, the notorious Tunisian legislation for drug use. It brings a heavy toll for thousands of young Tunisians who take cannabis and other drugs recreationally – even if it is for the first time.
A recent report from Human Rights Watch, ‘All this for a joint,’ questions the effectiveness of these laws.
The report says that “For almost a quarter of a century, Tunisia’s drug laws have mandated long prison sentences for drug offenses resulting in large numbers of low-level offenders in Tunisian prisons.”
Indeed, the courts in Tunisia are required to impose harsh sentences for anyone found guilty of possession and consumption. And the terms are rigid.
As Human Rights Watch point out, “The law imposes a minimum sentence of five years in prison on repeating offenders. For both offenses, judges have no discretion to reduce the sentence in light of mitigating circumstances. Even in cases involving possession of a single joint, judges lack authority to impose alternatives to incarceration such as community-based sanctions or other administrative penalties.”
I spoke to Farhat Othman, a former Tunisian diplomat and researcher in sociology who has written about Law 52. He said that the law is a “a daily tragedy” that many young Tunisians have to go through. He said the law should be abolished, as it criminalises young people who are victims of the “true delinquents”, defined by Othman as drug traffickers.
Othman said that instead of recognising the hardships of those in Tunisia, the government was using legislation such as Law 52 to “control and maintain its grip on the young people in Tunisia.”
Calls for change
The gatherings are notable for including large numbers of family members of prisoners – the indirect victims of Law 52’s harsh punishments.
They showed strong opposition to the sentencing guidelines, as well as outrage at alleged torture and mistreatment in Tunisian prisons.
The families are also complaining about the indiscriminatory nature of the Tunisian prison system, where violent criminals and those on terror charges share cells with those whose sole crime is smoking a joint.
The weekly protests are organised by members of Sajin 52, an independent citizen’s initiative urging for reform of the law, which has seen high profile cases such as that of Adnen Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk.
Meddeb and Mabrouk are two members of the Carthage Film Festival organising committee. They were arrested on November 28 last year, initially for breaking a curfew which had been imposed after an attack on a bus containing members of the presidential guard.
They were later searched by the police who found rolling papers and detained them on the charge of ‘intention to use cannabis’.
At a hearing in December, the pair were sentenced to a year in prison and a 1,000-dinar fine, plus an additional 100-dinar fine for breaking curfew.
But a month later, they were acquitted by an appeals court.
Seif Eddine Jlassi, founding member of Fanni Raghman Anni, stressed that reforming the law should be mandatory.
“The current law, as it is, is a tool used to exclude young people, artists and activists from Tunisian public life.
“Law 52 is a political law used by Ben Ali in the past to crack down on political opponents and keep silent those who dare speak against his corruption and system”.
With a new draft law waiting to be debated in parliament, human rights activists in Tunisia hope that oppression and abuse associated with the law will soon be diminished.