Tunis — Tunisian activist Azyz Amami's trial on Friday (May 23rd) is sparking a national debate on the issue of criminal penalties for cannabis possession.
Amami and a friend were arrested May 12th in La Goulette for alleged possession of a narcotic substance.
The 31-year-old from Sidi Bouzid gained fame as an opponent of the Ben Ali regime. He was one of the first bloggers to write about the Tunisian revolution. He has also spoken out against police actions targeting young people.
Amami, who denies the charges, has received broad support. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) denounced his arrest as an example of "the persistent prosecution of youth and activists of the revolution". Tunis youths this week protested outside the interior ministry headquarters to demand his release.
According to attorney Ghazi Mrabet, Amami's arrest aims to quell free speech and eliminate what is left of the spirit of the revolution.
"He is a target because of his support for the youth revolution and his continuous criticism of police abuse," his father Khaled Amami told Magharebia. "These are trumped-up charges."
Activist Mounira Yaakoub argues that the case has nothing to do with the consumption of drugs.
"Azyz Amami is a prisoner of conscience who upset many in the government and in the opposition with his clear opinions and his voice in matters relating to the constitution and the system as a whole," Yaakoub said.
Amami's arrest is also raising questions about mandatory sentencing for cannabis cases.
Under the controversial 1992 law, drug consumptions is punished by jail time and a fine of one thousand dinars.
The law also prevents judges from considering mitigating circumstances, Tunisian Magistrates Union (SMT) official Walid Louguini explained.
"In other words, the judge is forced to sentence any defendant in the case of consumption of zatlah to one year in prison and a fine," he said.
The court "does not differentiate between a high school student, a university student and a delinquent", the magistrate added.
Hafidha Khidhr went through this experience with her son. He spent six months in prison before receiving a presidential pardon.
"My son was devoted to his studies at the Engineering Institute and was preparing for his graduation last year with honours. However, he consumed zatlah with some friends one evening and police raided the house," she told Magharebia.
Hafidha's son is not alone. According to figures released last year by the Tunisia's Centre for Judicial Studies, approximately 30 percent of the population under age 35 consume zatlah.
But some citizens worry that a more lenient policy would increase usage.
"This is a danger to the Tunisian people as a whole," civil servant Nadira Ben Youssef said.
Lawyer Majid Haj Ali raises another concern about amending the drug laws.
"Tunisia's border with Libya is not safe," he told Magharebia. "Drug dealers are operating heavily on the border and the fear is that Tunisia could become a transit area toward Europe and the world."
He suggested that punishment "be mitigated for first time users but enforced in case of recidivism".
"The law must be revised in that direction," the attorney added. "And why not propose community service, which does not exist now in Tunisian law?"