BEIRUT: Lebanon’s criminal justice system is blighted by arbitrary detention, arbitrary arrest, lengthy pretrial detention and long delays in trial, according to a report issued by a local human rights organization.
“Suspects are deprived of their liberty for weeks and some for years before a verdict is reached in their case and pretrial detainees drift along in an undetermined status, where they are perceived as the perpetrator, but have not been found guilty by a court of law,” the Alef report concluded.
“Guilty until Proven Innocent” is the result of a detailed investigation into the problem of arbitrary detention in Lebanon, and will be distributed to the country’s politicians, judges and other decision-makers.
Alef spent three years compiling the EU-funded study, which is based on interviews with 30 detainees from different segments of society – both innocent and guilty – and three focus groups with families of detainees.
It was released during a two-day conference Thursday and Friday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hamra.
“We’re launching a campaign against arbitrary detention. This is a common problem all over the world – even in Europe. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t highlight what’s happening here,” said Darine al-Hage, one of the board members and founders of the nongovernmental organization.
The research revealed a disturbing but unsurprising pattern of arbitrary arrests due to corruption, an inadequate legal framework and a lack of trained law enforcement officers, part of the legacy of the country’s postwar recovery that failed to rebuild its crippled institutions, now disproportionately affecting some of the most vulnerable people in Lebanon – migrant workers, addicts, homosexuals, alleged terrorists, alleged spies, bloggers and journalists.
“When journalists are doing their jobs of covering the news, they are often stopped by the police or by authorities outside of government jurisdiction,” said Firas Talhouk, a researcher with the media freedom NGO the Samir Kassir Foundation.
He pointed to cases of arbitrary detention of journalists by police as well as by non-state entities, such as private security guards at the Solidere development Downtown, as well as in areas associated with Hezbollah.
In other instances, he said that local bloggers had been detained without charges by Lebanon’s Cyber Crime Bureau, often for writing a critical post about a business that then lodged a complaint against them on the pretext of legal grounds.
Members of the LGBT community, many of whom keep their identities secret because of the taboo associated with it and the vaguely worded criminalization of “unnatural” acts enshrined in Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code, lack the kinds of public support networks that are available to other groups. For members of the gay community, speaking up about arbitrary detention can be particularly problematic.
Samira Khoujouk, executive director of the LGBT rights group Helem, acknowledged that there had recently been some progress in recognizing gay rights – such as in the public condemnation of the medical anal tests of suspected homosexuals in detention and the recognition of the lifestyle as “natural” by the Lebanese Psychologists’ Association.
However, she noted that as long as there was a law against gay sexual relations, there would continue to be unfair detentions that would be difficult to legally contest.
Members of the Alef panel were optimistic that their report could influence decision-makers.
George Ghali, who runs Alef’s monitoring and advocacy program, said, “Many people just don’t know – even judges and politicians.”