Tunis - Tunisia must stop widespread abuses under its draconian drug use law by drafting new legislation to eliminate prison sentences for recreational drug use or possession, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The controversial "Law 52", passed under toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, lays down harsh jail sentences for drugs use, in most cases cannabis resin, or "zatla" as it is known in Tunisia.
HRW said in a statement that thousands of people are jailed each year in Tunisia "merely for consuming or possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal use".
The New York-based watchdog issued a 33-page that it said "documents the human rights abuses and social toll that stem from enforcement of the country's draconian drug law".
The group said it interviewed 47 people who have been jailed in Tunisia for drugs offences and found that enforcement of the law had resulted in "serious human rights violations".
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"The people interviewed described beatings and insults during arrest and interrogation, mistreatment during urine tests, and searches of homes without judicial warrants," it said.
One identified only by the initials S.T. said he felt "broken" after five months behind bars for using cannabis, before being pardoned.
"When I got out, people would look at me as a criminal," he was quoted as saying. "Someone who spent time in prison is always a criminal."
People convicted of drug offences account for 28 percent of prisoners in Tunisia, and about 70 percent of them were jailed for using or possessing cannabis, HRW said, citing the justice ministry.
"If you smoke a joint in Tunisia, you risk getting arrested, beaten up by the police, sent for a urine test, and then sentenced to a year in an overcrowded prison with hardened criminals as your cellmates," said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at HRW.
"If Tunisia gets its drug law reform right, it can be a model for the region," she said in a statement.
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A group of activists named "Al Sajin 52" (Prisoner 52) says the law is "destroying lives".
A draft amendment was sent to in parliament in late December, but the assembly has yet to announce a schedule for its debate and vote.
The draft law abolishes jail terms for first- and second-time offenders.
However, HRW said it would also outlaw "public incitement to commit drug-related offences", a provision it warned would harm freedom of speech, with possible repercussions on rap artists.
"The new draft bill tacitly acknowledges the heavy toll that the current drug law has imposed on Tunisians, especially its youth," said Guellali.
"Parliament should take the logic to its conclusion by eliminating prison sentences altogether for drug use or possession for personal use."
As of December 15, 7,451 people were in Tunisia's prisons after being convicted of drugs offences under Law 52, the watchdog said, citing justice ministry figures.