Tunisia cannabis law to silence activists: Azyz Amami faces trial
TUNIS - A renowned blogger active during the 2011 revolution was bound over for trial Thursday on charges of consuming cannabis as a campaign grows demanding changes to a law that many call repressive.
Azyz Amami and his friend Sabri Ben Mlouka, who were arrested Monday night, will face trial on May 23 for "possession and consumption of drugs," their lawyer Bassem Trifi said.
Amami "categorically denies" the charges, Trifi said.
Dozens of people protested near the interior ministry calling for the two men to be released, carrying banners which read: "Azyz Amami is a prisoner of conscience," and "Down with the police state."
The pair were arrested under a law passed more than 20 years ago, which stipulates prison sentences ranging from one to five years for convicted cannabis users.
The law also prohibits judges from passing lighter sentences for extenuating circumstances.
Activists say it continues to be used to suppress freedom of expression, as it was under the regime of ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with a number of artists and musicians jailed on drug charges.
Amami was very active during the 2011 uprising and was arrested along with hundreds of others protesting against the former dictator.
Activists have been calling for less severe punishments for convicted drug users.
More than 50 percent of Tunisians held in pre-trial detention and around one third of Tunisia's 11,000 convicts were arrested on drug-related charges, and cannabis in particular, according to UN figures.
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa on Wednesday announced his support for reforms to the law, saying it was "no longer in tune with the times. We are in the process of amending so that it conforms to new realities."
The health and justice ministries are trying to "humanise" the legislation, health ministry director general Nabil Ben Salah said, while cautioning that decriminalising the drug was not an option.