Human rights group raises fears over artists imprisoned in Tunisia

Five men have been sentenced under Law52, the anti-drugs legislation enforced by the country’s former president

The international campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that it is concerned about the welfare of five artists, who have received prison sentences in Tunisia in the past month. The five men were all charged with drug use under a 23-year-old law, which should be repealed say Tunisian activists and politicians.

According to Le Monde, the film-maker Ala Eddine Slim, photographer Fakhri El-Ghezal, and artist Atef Maatallah were arrested on 19 November at Eddine Slim’s residence in the Nabeul suburb of Tunis. Around 15 armed police entered the premises with a search warrant for suspected terrorist activity.

The men were eventually charged with possession of cannabis under law 52, which was imposed in 1992 by the country’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled Tunisia in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprising. The anti-drug statute carries a one-year sentence and a fine of 1,000 dinars ($600).

In late November, two other artists, Adnen Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk, were detained and charged under the same law when police found tobacco leaves on the pair. According to our sister paper Le Journal des Arts, the presiding judge ruled that this was a drugs-related offence and delivered the mandatory one-year sentence.

“Human Rights Watch is very concerned about law 52. This law imposes harsh mandatory prison sentences, even for the consumption of light drugs; it throws in jail thousands of people every year,” say Amna Guellali, the Tunisia office director of HRW.

“It is a kind of Damocles sword hanging over artists, bloggers, activists, but also citizens—especially young people in Tunisia—who find themselves in the crosshairs of the police,” she says. A coalition of activists calling themselves AlSejin52, which aims to overturn the law, was launched last year.

El-Ghezal was recently awarded a research grant by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, a Tunisian non-profit organisation that supports cultural initiatives in North Africa and the Middle East.

Maatallah was awarded a prize earlier this year by the organisers of the DDessin contemporary drawing fair in Paris. Eddine Slim’s film Babylon was show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012. The Tunisian Embassy in London declined to comment.