On Thursday, Tunisian activist Azyz Amami, who shot to prominence while blogging about police brutality and state censorship during the 2011 revolution, will have his first hearing on charges of cannabis possession. Amami, who was arrested on Monday alongside photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka, faces one to five years in prison.
The upcoming hearing has local activists in an uproar, as does the violent nature of Amami’s arrest (as reported by his father Khaled Amami). According to reform groups like “Al Sajin 52,” marijuana possession is a long-abused pretext for making politically motivated arrests, particularly of young (vocal) activists. Take Amami, whose revolutionary fervor didn’t stop with the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In recent weeks, the young blogger has taken on the role as the spokesperson of a movement critical of Tunisia’s security forces, named “I burned down a police station too.” Now, the young blogger looks to follow in the footsteps of other activists – i.e., Yahya Dridi, Abdallah Yahya, Slim Abida and Mahmoud Ayad – arrested on similar charges late last year.
Amami’s detention will add momentum to campaigns aiming to strike down or amend Tunisia’s stiff law on cannabis use, a.k.a. “law 52,” which condemns users to a minimum one-year prison term, without the chance for a reduced or suspended sentence. The result: offenders represent nearly one third of detainees in Tunisia. Already the blogger’s supporters have organized a protest in downtown Tunis, a sit-in in a nearby suburb, and launched the hash tag #freeAsyz via Twitter. For now the outcry looks limited to Tunisia, though the International Federation of Human Rights has expressed concern about the blogger’s violent arrest.
For Tunisia’s new interim government, focused on restoring stability to the nation, Thursday’s hearing may be critical. Especially since the rumblings of arbitrary and violent detentions offer an uncomfortable reminder of life under Tunisia’s last, Islamist, government, ousted this January, which came under repeated fire for its allegedly biased security forces and judiciary. Already the opposition is joining the fray; leading secular party Ettakatol is calling for Amami and Mlouka’s liberation, and for the state to revise its legislation on marijuana use and possession. Likewise, the Joumhourri party is condemning the use of police brutality during the arrests.
In the past, Tunis was able to temper public outcry over the arrests of activists like Weld El 15 and Amina Sboui by handing down light or suspended sentences. But, barring an acquittal, it’s difficult to see how the courts can circumvent inflexible marijuana legislation. The danger is that a Tunis-based protest movement against an anti-cannabis law could very well tap into a deeper wave of discontent in a country where youth unemployment hovers over 30% — despite the recent power transition. If Amami goes to prison, look for those tensions to near a boiling point.