BEIRUT: Parliament is set to meet next Tuesday for a session Speaker Nabih Berri dubbed a “legislative revolution.” Four laws are on the agenda: A draft law on fighting corruption, a law establishing a court for financial crimes, a law to create an elderly pension system, and a law for a general amnesty.That final bill has been a demand of thousands of people, mostly from the country’s Shiite community in the Bekaa Valley and Sunnis in north Lebanon and Sidon, for many years. They have called for those arrested for or wanted on charges of petty crimes, nonviolent crimes, drug crimes and Islamist-linked clashes to be pardoned. Tens of thousands of ordinary people could be affected by a general amnesty. But some have raised questions over whether politicians themselves might be included.
The last Cabinet committed to its endorsement in its policy statement, and caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri last month said it would be adopted before the end of the year. He was speaking amid massive protests that brought down his government a few days later.
Placing the general amnesty bill on the agenda at a time of unprecedented popular protests against the political class is partially intended to quell street pressure, by the admission of politicians themselves.
“This issue concerns the main Sunni street in Tripoli and Sidon and it concerns Hariri directly,” Bakr Hujeiri, a Baalbeck MP with Hariri’s Future Movement, told The Daily Star. “For sure there is a populist aspect to it.” Some of the most consistent protests over the past three weeks have taken place in Tripoli and Sidon, and Hariri lost seats in both districts in last year’s parliamentary elections.
Similarly, Baalbeck MP Mohammad Nasrallah of Berri’s Amal Movement told The Daily Star: “We as a movement have supported this for a long time, but given the pressing circumstances it may appease the current atmosphere.”
Nasrallah and Hujeiri both said they had not seen a copy of the law, and did not know the details of who would be included in the amnesty. They both said they believed it was unlikely the law would be adopted next week, and would instead be referred to committees for study.
But the presence of an amnesty law in Parliament also raises the issue of who exactly will be included - and whether politicians accused of corruption may slide their way in.
Nizar Saghieh, a leading lawyer and founder of NGO The Legal Agenda, said in a tweet that officials, “mindful of the awakening of the people,” may be seeking a general amnesty similar to the one they granted themselves at the end of the Civil War. The General Amnesty Law of 1991 retrospectively exempted those who took part in the conflict, including many former warlords who remain in power today, from all crimes committed before March 28, 1991. “Why did Berri talk about the amnesty law again? Do you want to bribe people with amnesty, or exempt yourselves from what you have done?” Saghieh asked.
At the same time, he noted that there had been no reference to endorsing a law on the independence of the judiciary that many activists, judges and some MPs have said is essential to fighting corruption. “So supporting the movement takes place via amnesty, rather than accountability,” Saghieh said sarcastically.
Even those who most support the general amnesty are warning against politicians being included.
“We’ve been shouting in support for this amnesty for many years, before elections, after elections. But let me be clear, we ask for a general amnesty for the poor people like us, not for the ones who stole public money,” Abou Abdo Mazloum, the media representative of the Baalbeck-Hermel Committee for the General Amnesty, told The Daily Star.
Mazloum, who spent several years in prison on drug charges, said parties had long used promises of a general amnesty to garner votes before elections, due to its large support.
Ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections, Sunni and Shiite voters threatened not to vote for parties traditionally supported by their communities - specifically Future, Amal and Hezbollah - unless an amnesty was signed into law. These same voters have staged dozens of protests over the years, blocking roads in Baalbeck, Beirut and the north.
As for whether politicians would be able to use an amnesty to appease a street that has demanded their ouster, Mazloum was doubtful. “Would the general amnesty reduce street pressure? Maybe 1 percent, but people today want more than their basic rights.”
But the amnesty could help unite Lebanon in the midst of the current uprising, according to Omar al-Rifai, a former Islamist prisoner and longtime pro-amnesty activist. He said a general amnesty would help increase unity, “especially at this time,” in reference to the uprising.
Rifai was speaking to The Daily Star Saturday from a tent set up by amnesty supporters at Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square, which has come to be known as “Revolution Square” for its large, spirited protests.
He noted that many from Lebanon’s Sunni community had been arrested or were wanted for crimes committed during clashes in Tripoli and Sidon between factions who either supported or opposed the regime in Syria. These clashes often had sectarian undertones. “It was a time when the state couldn’t provide security and strife broke out between Lebanese. Let us turn the page and rid ourselves of that past.”