In Lebanon, army courts target anti-government protesters

A year after anti-government protests roiled Lebanon, dozens of protesters are being tried before military courts that human rights lawyers say grossly violate due process and fail to investigate allegations of torture and abuse. (AP)
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Updated 22 November 2020

In Lebanon, army courts target anti-government protesters

  • The demonstration was part of a wave of protests sweeping Lebanon against corruption and misrule
  • A year after mass protests roiled Lebanon, dozens of protesters are being tried before military courts

BEIRUT: Khaldoun Jaber was taking part in an anti-government protest near the presidential palace outside Beirut last November when several Lebanese intelligence officers in plainclothes approached and forcibly took him away.
The demonstration was part of a wave of protests sweeping Lebanon against corruption and misrule by a group of politicians who have monopolized power since the country’s civil war ended three decades ago.
Jaber didn’t know it then, but Lebanese security forces targeted him because of his social media posts criticizing President Michel Aoun. What followed were 48 harrowing hours of detention during which security officers interrogated him and subjected him to physical abuse, before letting him go.
“I was beaten, harmed psychologically and morally,” Jaber said. “Three of my teeth were broken and I lost 70% of my hearing in my left ear.”
“I am still traumatized,” he added.
A year after mass protests roiled Lebanon, dozens of protesters are being tried before military courts, proceedings that human rights lawyers say grossly violate due process and fail to investigate allegations of torture and abuse. Defendants tried before the military tribunal say the system is used to intimidate protesters and prop up Lebanon’s sectarian rulers.
Around 90 civilians have been referred to the military justice system so far, according to Legal Agenda, a human rights group based in Beirut.
“We expect many more people to be prosecuted,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the group.
The trials underscore the growing perils of activism in Lebanon, where a string of court cases and judicial investigations against journalists, as well as smear campaigns and intimidation to silence critics, has eroded the country’s reputation for free speech and tolerance in a largely autocratic Arab world.
Frangieh said that security forces arrested around 1,200 people from the beginning of the anti-government uprising in October 2019 through the end of June. Lebanese authorities have prosecuted around 200 of them, including those referred to the military judiciary, the monitoring group has found.
Two months after his arrest, Jaber received an official notice saying military prosecutors were charging him with assaulting security forces at the Baabda Palace when the plainclothes agents detained him.
“I was shocked when I was called to the military tribunal,” Jaber said.
The trial did not take place until Oct. 7, when the military court declared Jaber innocent of assaulting security officers, which is a military crime under Lebanese law, but said it lacked jurisdiction over a second charge, that of insulting the president.
Like Jaber, many detained protesters only find out a month or more after their release that authorities have referred them to military courts. Many of these cases were scheduled for hearings this November and December, Frangieh said, before a two-week nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic temporarily closed the courts.
Jaber’s case is an example of how military prosecutors try to claim jurisdiction over civilian cases by usually filing more than one charge, including one that is a military crime, said Frangieh, who represents protesters before the military tribunal and is also part of the Lawyers’ Committee for Defense of Protesters.
“There was no evidence,” Frangieh said about Jaber’s charge of assaulting security officers. “He was kidnapped during a protest, but he was actually targeted because of his social media posts that criticized the president.”
The military prosecutor’s office closed, without investigation, a torture complaint that Jaber had submitted, she added.
According to Legal Agenda, the military courts usually issue summary decisions on the same day of the trial, without issuing an explanation.
“There’s really a lot of doubt about the fairness and arbitrariness of the decisions issued by the court,” she said, adding that when defendants are sentenced, the legal basis of the conviction is not immediately shared with their lawyers.
Military prosecutors often neglect to read the full case files prepared from military intelligence reports, or abruptly drop or change charges during trials, according to Frangieh and another lawyer with the committee representing protesters, Ayman Raad.
“Military courts have no business trying civilians,” said Aya Majzoub, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. The international rights group has called on Lebanon’s parliament to end the troubling practice by passing a law to entirely remove civilians from the military court’s jurisdiction.
Georges Abou Fadel was summoned for a military trial on Oct. 30, after he was detained during a protest a year ago in the town of Beit Mery, east of Beirut. During his trial, the military prosecutor asked the judge for time to read the case report, then asked to change the charge against Abou Fadel from assaulting security forces to the lesser charge of nonviolently resisting arrest.
The court found him innocent but Abou Fadel said he wasn’t relieved, knowing there’ll be more trials “for my friends, for the people protesting, for anyone who is trying to call for his rights.”
Lawyers, rights activists and defendants describe the military tribunals’ prosecution of protesters and other civilians as another node in the web of Lebanon’s sectarian system that protects the power of its top politicians rather than the rights of citizens.
“This is one of the tools used by the sectarian parties,” said Abou Fadel — keeping their people loyal through fear of the military courts.
Many of the judges at the military tribunal are appointed by the defense ministry, which undermines the tribunal’s judicial independence, according to rights activists. The head of the military tribunal is customarily Shiite, while the chief military prosecutor is Maronite Christian.
Reforming the Lebanese judicial system is “one of the most important demands” of the anti-government protesters, Raad said, including ending military trials for civilians.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm did not respond to a request for comment. Lebanese officials typically do not address the question of why civilian cases are being tried in the military court system. Security forces have denied beating and torturing protesters and activists in detention.
On Nov. 13, Jad Al Rayess was fined 200,000 Lebanese Pounds ($132) by a military court, 11 months after security forces detained him at a protest on Beirut’s Ring Road. The court has not yet released a statement with the charge for which he was convicted.
The 32-year-old said that he plans to emigrate from Lebanon.
“We are not going to get any progress without blood, and that’s nothing I want to be involved in,” he said.


Schools in Lebanon reopen, other sectors gradually

Mask-clad shoppers walk past shops in Beirut's Hamra street on May 7, 2020, as Lebanon gradually eases its lockdown measures against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 1 min 33 sec ago

Schools in Lebanon reopen, other sectors gradually

  • The death toll in Lebanon has reached 1,000, while the total number of confirmed cases has jumped to more than 126,000 cases, at a rate of more than 1,200 cases per day during the past two weeks

BEIRUT: The Ministry of Education will reopen schools for integrated education starting on Monday.

This comes after two weeks of closure and amid objections from civil bodies and commentators working in the public field.

Hilda El-Khoury, director of the counseling and guidance department at the Ministry of Education, said: “Returning to education through the combined method will be within the preventive measures that were previously approved.”

However, the Civil Emergency Authority in Lebanon said: “The decision will lead to a health crisis affecting the most vulnerable people, namely children and underage students, especially with the number of cases not declining since before the closure, and with the noticeable increase in the daily number of deaths.”

The Ministerial Committee for Combating the Coronavirus has meanwhile maintained its decision to impose a partial curfew in Lebanon but amended its implementation hours. Instead of starting at 5:00 p.m. each evening, the curfew now begins at 11 p.m. and ends at 5 a.m., provided that restaurants, cafes and malls close at 10:00 pm.

During its meeting on Sunday, the committee decided to restore vehicle movement on roads but maintained the suspension of social activities, cinemas and nightclubs.

Health minister for Lebanon’s caretaker government, Hamad Hassan, said that the adoption of the strategy, permitting odd/even license plate vehicles on the roads on alternate days, had doubled the number of COVID-19 cases due to people’s reliance on shared transportation.

He said: “The rate of commitment to complete closure in all Lebanese territories has reached 70 percent over the past two weeks.”

Hassan said that the aim of the measures was to alleviate the pressure on the medical and nursing staff.

“The required medical measures, completed in terms of expanding the hospitals’ capacity to accommodate the COVID-19 cases, have been completed,” he said.

The death toll in Lebanon has reached 1,000, while the total number of confirmed cases has jumped to more than 126,000 cases, at a rate of more than 1,200 cases per day during the past two weeks.

Abdul Rahman Al-Bizri, an infectious disease specialist and member of the emergency committee on coronavirus, regretted the lack of plans for the period following the closure due to a lack of coordination on COVID-19 between state departments.

He said that this had kept the country in a state of confusion and chaos while citizens paid a high price in light of the difficult economic and living conditions.

Al-Bizri said: “The repeated closures are unsuccessful, and one of their consequences is the decline in economic activity, the life cycle, and the living conditions.”

Meanwhile, video footage of Health Minister Hamad Hassan went viral on Saturday. It showed him cutting a cake for the birthday of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in the open market in Baalbek city.

The video was circulated on social media and caused a scandal following a similar episode in which the same minister was involved months ago.

The people of his town in the Bekaa met him during the peak of the spread of coronavirus, and he danced among them carrying a sword. Some people carried him on their shoulders and other social distancing measures were also not observed.

The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-Clubs and Pastries has called in the past few days for the sector to reopen to save what is left of it.

In a statement issued on the eve of the ministerial committees’ meeting, the syndicate called on the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, to “adopt a health-economic approach for the benefit of the rest of the sector.”

The syndicate added: “The sector has fully fulfilled its duties with regard to the preventive measures.

“We have also advanced a new approach related to the capacity of institutions, whereby chairs and tables are reallocated to accommodate only 50 percent of the original capacity, guaranteeing that no overcrowding will occur.

“We insist on adopting this as a new measure, and we discussed it with the minister of interior, and the sector will reopen its doors on Monday morning while remaining committed to all procedures and laws.”

Bechara Asmar, the head of the General Labor Union, called for the reopening of the country “because it secures a return to the economic cycle during the month of the holidays, protects workers, employees and daily-paid workers in all private, public, and official sectors, and preserves their livelihood at a time when they risk having their wages reduced, starving to death or dying of the coronavirus.”