BEIRUT: Two political parties announced Friday they would challenge a new naturalization decree granting 375 people Lebanese citizenship, as the justice minister leaped to the defense of the government. While the act itself, which was signed by President Michel Aoun, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and caretaker Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk – is not in violation of the Constitution, the manner of its passage and its timing are raising hackles across the country.
Despite the announcement by two major political parties that they will appeal the move to the judiciary, officials behind the decree have remained silent in response to the widespread criticism.
The Lebanese Forces announced that it would “go all the way” with the case and raise the issue with the Shura Council, the highest legal body dealing with administrative matters.
The Progressive Socialist Party released a statement saying it would appeal to the Constitutional Council.
But a judge from the body told The Daily Star, “All [appeals to] decrees go to the Shura Council and we have nothing to do with this [decree].”
A PSP source subsequently said legal advice would be sought as to where the appeal should be made and that “the important part was the stance against this decree.”
The source said the PSP had decided to appeal due to the lack of clarity over the criteria used for who gained citizenship.
“Is it a coincidence that most of the names on the list are businessmen?” the source asked.
The party’s parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc released a statement asking for clear and specific criteria, “removed from political calculations and personal interests,” to be adopted when discussing naturalization decrees. The bloc also criticized the leaking of the names of those included in the decree in documents across social media.
With the LF, PSP and a handful of politicians blasting the decree, caretaker Justice Minister Salim Jreissati released a statement defending its legality and accusing critics of “a false campaign similar to the ‘presidential quota’ one,” in an apparent reference to the recent LF-Free Patriotic Movement spat over ministerial portfolios.
Jreissati is member of the FPM, which was founded by the president. He contrasted this decree against previous similar acts that “changed the demographic balance [of Lebanon].”
An LF source said the party’s legal team was fully prepared to take all legal steps needed to strike down the decree. “Some people on the list might have the right to citizenship, but the way in which this whole thing was done is too shady,” the LF source told The Daily Star.
The source said that the timing of the decree was questionable, with nearly 1 million registered Syrian refugees in the country, and with many in Lebanon, including senior politicians, alleging an ongoing campaign to have them naturalized. Aoun in April criticized a joint EU-U.N. statement made after that month’s Brussels conference on the refugee crisis, saying it suggested the international bodies were advocating permanent settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Jreissati confirmed reports that Aoun was planning on issuing similar decrees each year until the end of his term in 2022, saying such decrees would be repeated when “deserving cases arise and applications are submitted.”
Although similar decrees have been enacted before by outgoing presidents, the LF source noted that “reasons were made public as to why those being granted citizenship were eligible.”
Sources familiar with the issue have confirmed to The Daily Star that Aoun signed the act within the last 10 days, while Hariri and Machnouk did so before the current government assumed caretaker status on May 22.
A former head of the Shura Council said the timing of Aoun’s signature was not an issue as he retains full presidential powers.
As for the act’s other signatories, “if Hariri and Machnouk signed before the government [assumed caretaker status], that’s what matters and the date will be shown once the decree is publicized,” the judge said.
A prominent Beirut lawyer told The Daily Star that if caretaker ministers had signed the decree, it would be enough to annul it in its entirety. “This is not a normal decree and doesn’t require urgent care by officials, which is what a caretaker government is for,” the lawyer said on condition of anonymity. The lawyer confirmed the president acted fully within his powers to enact the decree, “but you also have to see if the president is allowed to give honorary citizenship as is done for football players many times.”
Despite widespread reports surfacing of sums of money being paid to effectively buy the new citizenship, one of those who applied to be included told The Daily Star anonymously that they had not paid any money.
“If I did, I wouldn’t have done it because one, it would make it even more wrong than it already is for me to request citizenship in such a way, and two, I don’t have money to throw around like that,” the source said in an online message to The Daily Star.
It was unclear whether their name was listed in the decree.
The source said a family friend had recently got in contact and asked if they were still interested in obtaining Lebanese citizenship, asking the source to fill out an Excel spreadsheet. The family friend then forwarded the application on, but “they didn’t tell me to whom even after I asked,” the source said. The source’s claims could not be independently verified.
Among those being naturalized are Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Saudi, Emirati, Moroccan, Algerian, U.S., Indian and Sri Lankan nationals, as well as people from African and European countries.
While not as vocal in his criticism of the decree, Kataeb leader MP Sami Gemayel sent a letter to the president’s general secretariat asking for a copy of the act.
In his statement, Jreissati said there was no need for the decree to be published in the Official Gazette, but that a right to access information request could be filed to obtain it.