Tunisia’s PM visit to Germany; Reforming the Prison System; Revamping Law 52

Tunisia’s PM visit to Germany; Reforming the Prison System; Revamping Law 52

(By Fatma Benmosbah*)

The State Visit of the Tunisian Prime Minister to Germany

For a short two-day official visit to Germany (February 14-15), the Tunisian Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, had a rather heavy and challenging schedule. This is an important visit that coincides with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and it comes at a very difficult time. Mr. Chahed has to restore the climate of confidence that has always characterized relations between Tunisia and Germany, but recently shaken by the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, by a Tunisian national. Mr. Chahed must improve, as much as possible, the image of Tunisia in Germany; reassure its various German partners in the public and private sectors; obtain an increase in German public aid; convince new potential investors; respond persuasively to media inquiries; and strengthen ties with Germany in the crucial areas of security, financial and economic support, including the conversion of the Tunisian debt to Germany into investments; speed up the implementation of the Tunisian-German university project; ensure Tunisia’s involvement in the G-20 Summit to be held this summer in Hamburg; make sure that the project of a Marshall Plan promoted by Germany in favor of Africa will be acted upon; and get Germany’s support for the Tunisian initiative on Libya.

Merkel pressures Tunisia on deportations Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, paid tribute to the 12 people killed and dozens injured in the December 19, 2016, terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market, but rejected any responsibility for the events leading up to the said terror attack. Ahead of talks with Merkel, Chahed told the German newspaper Bild: “Let me make one thing perfectly clear, the Tunisian authorities did not commit a single error. I reject the criticism that Tunisia was slow to take back failed asylum seekers from Europe, including Amri [the author of the terrorist attack ].” Chahed praised the current cooperation between the two countries in his interview with Bild, but also called on the German authorities to make sure that anyone scheduled to be deported back to Tunisia is truly a Tunisian national. “The biggest problems for Europe are the refugees who go from Libya to Italy,” he added.

Youssef Chahed, met with his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is very eager to speed up repatriation of failed asylum seekers, particulalrly after the Tunisian citizen, Anis Amri, a rejected asylum seeker awaiting deportation, committed the terrorist attack of December 19, 2016.

After her meeting with the Tunisian Prime Minister, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that they “discussed how the repatriation of people can be improved … how to make voluntary repatriation more attractive, by offering education, help to get started,” Merkel said, adding that around 1,500 of the 30,000 Tunisians in Germany were supposed to have left the country. “It must be clear that the others will be deported involuntarily. We must be quicker about that and we’re talking to Tunisia,” she said. “Last year, some 116 failed asylum seekers were sent back to Tunisia, this is not enough,” Merkel added.

Chahed: “No plans for Tunisian asylum centers” Earlier, answering questions about the creation of refugee camps in the South of Tunisia, Chahed told Reuters that “Setting up camps or reception centers was not an issue (in our talks)”. According to Deutschlandfunk, the Prime Minister stated that “Tunisia does not have the capacity to create refugee camps”. With the EU looking to stem the flow of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea, Chahed rejected the idea of similar proposals to those adopted by Libya two weeks ago at the EU Malta Summit. While Libya has agreed to set up “safe” refugee camps for Europe-bound migrants, Chahed said he rejected the idea of Tunisia setting up its own asylum centers to ease the burden on Europe and he saw no option for such an agreement between Europe and Tunisia. “Tunisia is a very young democracy and I don’t think that it will work, or that we have the capacity and the means to set up refugee camps,” he said, adding that “any prospective solution must be envisaged in conjunction with Libya”.

The Tunisian prison system
During his visit to Germany, the Tunisian Prime Minister was reminded of the terrible conditions in the severely overcrowded Tunisian prisons, and the horrendous conditions endured by inmates. A situation emphasized again in a recent report by the international NGO, ASF (Lawyers Without Borders). It seems however that Tunisian authorities have started to take action. Tunisian officials realize that without changes in the prison system, it will be very hard to continue to praise the Tunisian exception and its rising democracy abroad.

Tunisia to Revamp the Famous Law 52, a Draconian Drug Law

Tunisia is revamping its draconian drug laws, which have been denounced for penalizing the use of cannabis with mandatory-minimum sentences of one year in prison, and for not differentiating between soft and hard drugs. For many Tunisians, Law 52 is a relic of the 23 years of Ben Ali’s police state, when the latter operated with impunity and used the law to settle scores with the autocrat’s opponents.

The revamp came after the arrest of two brilliant young high school students, which prompted protests and a renewed effort to amend draconian drug laws that many say are used by police to abuse people. After the arrest of the two teenagers, even the Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, recognized that the law was “out of sync” with daily realities. He urged the parliament to revise the law and eliminate all prison sentences for recreational drug use or possession. Endorsing the demands of the campaign launched by civil society on social networks “El habs la!” (No to jail!), Mr. Chahed listed the measures that had to be taken, such as the reopening of detoxification centers, the launching of awareness campaign among young people, and the revision of Law 52, while focusing law enforcement agencies on cracking down primarily on drug dealers. The Prime Minister added that he is not about to send smokers of “zatla “(cannabis) to prison, and that “this law has destroyed the life and the future of millions of young Tunisians, just like the two young students, who found themselves caught in the gears of the justice system.” For Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch,”Law 52 reveals the fundamental problems of the penal and judicial system in Tunisia, which does not guarantee people’s rights and clogs prisons with minor offenders.” The law penalizes individuals for consumption of drugs rather than possession, so all police need to do is conduct a successful urine test for a conviction. Drugs legislation affects mainly young people—the age of those in jail on drug offences is mostly between 18 and 35. It impacts a significant proportion of Tunisian society, almost a third of all prisoners are being held on drug offences.

On June 2014, Najib Laabidi, a filmmaker and musician, described how he was sleeping in his room when police raided his home. “They come to your home and take you away to do the test, even if they don’t find marijuana on you,” he said. He and three others were convicted and spent a year in prison. Unlike other crimes, for which judges have leeway in sentencing, the law requires a minimum of one year behind bars, with fines of $700 to $2,100. “In addition, this law does not distinguish between soft and hard drugs, so you get the same penalty whether consuming cocaine or marijuana,” said lawyer Bassem Trifi, who has defended hundreds of drug cases. He also lamented the lack of drug addiction treatment centers in the country, with only one still functioning. A government survey of 15- to 17-year-olds living in the Tunis metropolitan area found that 11.6 percent had tried marijuana, but for most other estimates, the rate is higher.

The 33-page report, “‘All This for a Joint’: Tunisia’s Repressive Drug Law and a Roadmap for Its Reform,” documents the human rights abuses and social toll that stem from enforcing the country’s draconian drug laws, which send thousands of Tunisians to prison each year merely for consuming or possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal use.

In an interview given to Nesma TV, on Sunday Feb. 19th, President Caid Essebsi spoke about his vision and expectation regarding Law 52. He vigorously condemned it and called for replacing the prison sentence for drug users with more lenient alternatives such as fines and community service; and, invoking Article 80 of the Constitution, he suggested that the National Security Council be convened and issue an order that police officers stop arresting young smokers. He also called the members of the Tunisian Parliament to move on and assume responsibility. It should be noted that the delay in making a decision on this matter stems from their absenteeism during the discussions of the committee tasked with examining the government’s proposals for legal reform.

*This Review was conducted by Fatma Benmosbah, an analyst of local and Arab affairs based in Tunis. It was translated from the French by the Maghreb Center.