Three Tunisian artists have been imprisoned for cannabis use, after being wrongly accused of terrorist activity. The law related to possession of narcotics is widely used in Tunisia against artists who are addressing social injustice and criticising government and police through art and activism.
Photographer Fakhri El-Ghezal, artist Atef Maatallah, and filmmaker Ala Eddine Slim were at Slim’s house on 19 November 2015 when armed officers stormed the property. Police had a search warrant for suspected terrorist activity, citing as evidence that Maatallah had a beard and El-Ghezal carrying a suspicious bag.
The police found nothing incriminating at the property, but arrested the three men for using cannabis. All three men have been fined 1000 dinars ($500) and been sentenced to a year in prison, according to Le Monde.
“The raid was carried out by three different brigades totaling 15 armed police in bulletproof vests, who thought they were dismantling a dangerous terrorist cell,” an unnamed friend told Le Monde. “They came face to face with three artists having a beer and an eight month pregnant professor of fine art.”
After finding no evidence of terrorist activity, the police invoked Law 52 to arrest them. The law dates from 1992, the era of the previous leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country for 23 years before fleeing to Saudi Arabia after the revolution in 2011. The law states that anyone found in possession of any narcotic substances or plants can be imprisoned from one to five years, and fined between 1,000–3,000 dinars.
Law 52 related to possession of narcotics has been widely used in Tunisia against artists, especially rappers, who are addressing social injustice and criticising government and police through art and activism.
The three men are very active in the contemporary arts scene in Tunisia and a group of young artists and activists have launched a campaign for their release.
All three men are artists of international renown. El-Ghezal has exhibited his photographs at the New Museum in New York, the Mucem museum in Marseille, and the Beirut Art Center. Slim works with emerging filmmakers in Tunisia, and Maatallah was awarded second prize at the International Drawing Salon in Paris this year and his work is included in the Centre Pompidou collection.
Paintings: from Atef Maatallah’s tumblr page: