Calls mount against Tunisia jail-for-joint law
"Repression is not effective at all... I am totally against imprisonment," the country's secretary of state for youth, Faten Kallel, said in La Presse newspaper.
Law 52, dating back to 1992 during the rule of toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, lays down a mandatory jail sentence of one year for use of narcotics and rules out any mitigating circumstances.
Before Tunisia's 2011 revolution, the law was used to suppress criticism of the Ben Ali regime.
Its use has since become widespread, with thousands of young Tunisians locked up each year mostly for use of cannabis.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of trials under Law 52 shot up from 732 to 5,744, official figures show.
"Long prison sentences are cruel, disproportionate, and counterproductive punishment for recreational users," Human Rights Watch said in a report entitled "All this for a joint".
Behind bars, those convicted often have "to share an overcrowded cell with persons imprisoned for serious crimes", said HRW.
"People convicted for drug use or possession leave prison with a criminal record that often prevents them from gaining employment and subjects them to social stigma and police harassment," said the New York-based rights watchdog.
Civil society groups hailed an amendment which the government proposed to parliament in December that would not lay down prison sentence for first- or second-time offenders.
But "the enthusiasm was short-lived", said HRW's Amna Guellali.
The justice ministry, at the bidding of a parliamentary legal commission, has restored the possibility of prison terms for first-time offenders.
"Deputies thought the original version was too tolerant," the commission's Hassouna Nasfi told AFP.
He said the commission would hear the views of civil society groups on Thursday and of detainees next week.
At a meeting on Wednesday night, a group of non-governmental organisations including HRW and the Tunisian League for Human Rights said they had sent a letter to deputies warning of the "serious consequences" on society of the legislation.
In its latest form, the proposed law would "demolish" the changes proposed by the government, they wrote.
The backdown has mobilised public opinion against the drugs law, gathered around the "Sajin 521" (Prisoner 52) movement.
President Beji Caid Essebsi, who is aged 90, is also an advocate for reform.
"We must not wreck young people's future," he told a group of foreign students last week.
Yassine Brahim, leader of liberal centre-right party Afek Tounes, has warned that convicted youths - in a country struggling to redress its economy and faced with jihadist threats - risked radicalisation behind bars.
On the Islamist side of Tunisian politics, Lotfi Zitoun has joined the clamour against Law 52.
The numbers are "crazy: almost a third of the prisons' population is made up of young Tunisians who used illicit substances. Among them are students, pupils, our children," Zitoun, who is close to Rashed Ghannouchi, leader of the powerful Islamist movement Ennahdha, told a forum.
Calling for the use of cannabis to be decriminalised, he warned that penal sentences could throw disenchanted young Tunisians facing a bleak future into the clutches of terrorist groups.