I spoke with Khaled Bouhrizi – Mr Kaz – last week about the past 6 years he spent in jail cut off from the world. Bouhrizi didn’t murder or steal. He had a business, unlawful perhaps. He sold hemp – commonly known as ‘zatla’ in Tunisia – to clients he did or he didn’t know. Bouhrizi was arrested in 2006 and convicted from 6 years of prison for hemp dealing until he was released earlier in January 2012. As he explained, he thinks of this dealing as, “more honorable than vandalizing or stealing. I sold zatla because I needed money to improve my life conditions,” said Bouhrizi.
Bouhrizi comes from a poor neighborhood in Tunis, Kabaria. His parents didn’t have enough means to help him make ends meet. So he preferred to do it his own way. I asked him if he would do it again if had the opportunity to change the past. He said yes. This is despite the six wasted years when he often thought of suicide: “Sometimes, thoughts of death seemed to walk beside me in prison. I would try to kill time talking to cellmates, but time was frozen. It was the same situation for every day of every single year.”
The law ruling against deal of zatla – there are other laws for other different kinds of drugs and substances – was introduced in 1992 either by the chamber of deputies or president Ben Ali himself. Little information is available about the subject as it remains a taboo in both the society and its law courts. The law convicts first-time arrested users for 1 year and a 1 thousand dinars fine. The sentence and fine will go fivefold in case of a second arrest. Selling zatla, however, is punishable by 6 years for each client identified. Thus, one may end up with dozens of years in jail if caught with other clients willing to give him up. Bouhrizi was only sentenced for one deal and one client.
“Judges don’t look at us as individuals, they see us as titles with felonies who deserve to rot in jail,” said Khaled with passion.
Khaled Bouhrizi at a concert
Khaled hasn’t gone back to consuming or selling zatla since he left jail. He is clean now. Unfortunately, Khaled’s young brother, another rapper Mohamed Ali Bouhrizi, Madou MC, was arrested for consumption last march. He will be convicted for 1 year of jail away from his studies and profession and he has a 1 thousand-dinar fine. Thousands of people are convicted for zatla consumption or dealing each year as Bouhrizi witnessed in prison. Many of them are often nationals of western and sub-Saharan African countries, those close to Tunisia.
It has been 6 months now since the new elected body in Tunisia has been in power. The law has not been changed. Police forces still put a great deal of money and effort into running after consumers and sellers of zatla. Hemp will grow in the arid parts of the Tunisian hinterland where hardly anything else will grow. But there is also a history of smuggling such goods through the Algerian borders with Tunisia. The corruption of customs officials at borders also has a history, though Khaled doubts whether the state itself or the Government has had anything to do with the traffic of hashish.
Life is a continual risk for Tunisians who, often driven by hard conditions of life, choose to consume or sell zatla. The irony is that judges don’t even bother to look into the users’ psychiatric records. Many convicted for use of substances are sentenced for years of prison while all they might need is rehabilitation. Those convicted are sentenced for more years of jail if they fail to pay their fines. Fines increase as the ex-prisoners miss their payments, due to their incapacity to find jobs in a conservative Tunisian society that scarcely ever gives them a second chance.
Until now, there is no political willingness or any pressure from civil society to change the law. Youngsters like Khaled and his brother Mohamed Amine will have to go through this harsh incarceration until the government decides to amend the law and save the lives of thousands of young Tunisians who just yearn for freedom and dignity.