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Lebanon News

Qortbawi suspends judges amid efforts to limit corruption

Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi reacts as a man changes a light bulb during a press conference in Beirut, Friday, July 27, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Four judges have been suspended from their posts and another 10 are being investigated for other types of misbehavior, Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said Friday.

Qortbawi was speaking to a news conference to outline his ministry’s achievements over the last 13 months since his assuming the portfolio.

“My personal preference is to work silently,” Qortbawi said, adding that he had called the news conference to allow the public a chance to monitor his ministry’s achievements.

Qortbawi discussed a range of issues, from legislative reform to prison administration, as well as anti-corruption efforts.

He said four judges had been suspended for suspected wrongdoing, and pledged that the judiciary’s Disciplinary Council would follow through with harsh measures in the 10 other cases it was now investigating.

Judicial sources said the judges suspended were involved in cases ranging from bribery to ethical misconduct.

Qortbawi asked the public not to “generalize” about judicial corruption, which he said would be unfair to the country’s many honest judges, and pledged to not be selective in anti-corruption efforts.

“We don’t just want to get the small ones, but the big ones too,” he said.

A hefty salary raise for the country’s judges, which took effect late last year, was “necessary and fundamentally important” in helping magistrates shore up their financial conditions, which many have blamed for corruption in the past.

Another component of the minister’s efforts to boost the standing and performance of the judiciary involves a standardized evaluation form to monitor each member of the bench.

Qortbawi said he hoped the Higher Judicial Council and other components of the judiciary would endorse the form he has proposed or otherwise suggest modifications.

“This is so that every judge, from the moment he graduates from the Judicial Studies Institute, will have an evaluation form, which can be relied on when making judicial appointments,” Qortbawi said.

However, no progress has been made on resolving a political dispute between President Michel Sleiman and Qortbawi’s Free Patriotic Movement on appointing a new head to the Higher Judicial Council.

He said he hoped the long-standing dispute would not extend to naming a replacement for public prosecutor Saeed Mirza, who has reached retirement age.

As for other achievements, Qortbawi said a long-standing demand to speed up the pace of trials, to relieve prison overcrowding, had registered slight progress.

In 2010, 63 percent of inmates in the country’s prisons had yet to be tried, while last year the figure improved to 58 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, the transfer of jurisdiction over prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry “will require several years,” and several hundred people should be employed, “trained by specialists,” in order to staff the body responsible for prison administration, he said.

Human rights groups and activists have long complained that the Internal Security Forces’ supervision of prisons has led to mistreatment.

Judicial reform should also extend to eliminating several courts established on an exceptional basis, Qortbawi said, also pledging to limit the prerogatives of the Military Tribunal.

As for the issue of those who went missing or were forcibly disappeared from the Civil War, the minister said he was pushing ahead with draft legislation to establish an independent national council that would take up their case.

He said the plan was now in its second version, with the Shura Council now following modifications suggested by both the council and NGOs active on the issue.

Qortbawi said he hoped the plan would soon be forwarded to the Cabinet for approval.

NGOs and activists have long complained that attempts to treat the issue have failed because the government has refused to allow independent bodies any say in the matter.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2012, on page 2.

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