'Impunity is a pattern': The lawyers taking on torture in Lebanon's prisons

'Impunity is a pattern': The lawyers taking on torture in Lebanon's prisons
Torture in Lebanese detention centres remains a widespread practice carried out with impunity. One group of lawyers, however, is fighting against the system for accountability.
6 min read
13 March, 2020
Security forces arrest a protester in Beirut. [Getty]
A myriad of smartphones have captured how security forces have beaten protesters on the Lebanese streets since 17 October. But what followed after they were detained is less known.

The Committee of Lawyers to Defend Protesters filed complaints last December on behalf of 17 protesters for the crime of torture against members of the security and military apparatus. 

"Many of the assaults were aimed to extract information and punish the protesters," said lawyer Ghida Frangieh, a member of the committee and The Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based NGO.

Contravening the law, the Military Prosecutor referred these complaints to the security and military agencies that are being accused of torture and then closed the investigations.

"Until today, we've not seen any transparent investigation or any member of the security police being held accountable," Frangieh told The New Arab.

In Lebanon this impunity is a pattern.

On paper, Lebanon has beefed up its legal arsenal against torture. In 2008 it became the first Middle Eastern nation to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (CAT) and in 2017 passed the Anti-Torture Law (Law 65/2017). 

But the moves of lawmakers seem de-synchronised with the reality of detention cells and courtrooms.

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Last October, in a conference room of a luxurious hotel in Beirut, a nervous man with a pile of papers listened to experts discussing the results of the Anti-Torture Law. 

The representative of the Ministry of Justice, judge Angela Dagher, took to the stage to remark on Lebanon's fight against torture. Then the nervous man took the microphone.

"My name is Toufic al-Dika, father of Hassan al-Dika". The room fell deadly silent.

Toufic saw his son enter prison accused of drug-related charges in November 2018. Seven months later he was handed his dead body.

The pile of documents in front of him attests to the fight of Toufic, who acted as his son's lawyer, to seek accountability: copies of complaints, medical reports and 16 letters sent by Hassan describing the beatings and electric shocks he was subjected to.

Stress positions, beatings, electric shocks and food deprivation are common practice in detention centres

Toufic read out loud the letter sent by Hassan the day he died: "I have fell down many times, I am not even able to stand".

"The judiciary and the intelligence branch are responsible of the death of my son," said Toufic. Dagher acknowledged "some problems in the judiciary" but added that "we can not put all the evils of our country in the judicial alone". 

Sitting next to Toufic, Ghassan Mukheiber, an ex-lawmaker who contributed to the draft of Law 65, addressed Dagher: "Is there a single veridic by Lebanese judges to criminalise torture?"

After a moment of silence, Mukheiber answered. None.

The architecture of impunity

Stress positions, beatings, electric shocks or food deprivation are common practice in detention centres according to a report by the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH).

In CLDH's visits to prisons in 2019, 42 out of the 92 inmates interviewed stated they had been physically tortured. Out of 26 complaints to the judiciary only two judges took action. 

Torture is "considered as a valid method of investigation and punishment" and is "accepted by the Lebanese Justice system", CLDH concluded.

Detainees accused of terrorism, drugs or theft; Syrians and Palestinian refugees, migrant workers, lower-income detainees, sex workers or LGBT individuals are the most vulnerable groups to be tortured by the Army Intelligence, General Security and the Internal Security Forces, say multiple NGOs.

The portfolio of two lawyers offers a glimpse of the spread of torture. Mohamad Sablouh, representative of the Lawyers Syndicate of Tripoli, has documented 35 cases of torture but no accountability has been achieved. "The problem is that the judges are not cooperating in order to implement the UNCAT," he denounced.

Lawyer Diala Shehade has worked in 202 cases where detainees told the judge they had been tortured. She represented the families of three Syrians that died under army custody in 2017. 

The forensic examination documented evidence of violence in their bodies but "the conclusion was worded in a very tricky way because the doctors were under threat," Shehade explained. No one has been held accountable yet. "We need at least one case to become a precedent, to be a lesson," urged Shehade.

One of Shehade's clients claims he was tortured first by Hezbollah and then by the Lebanese security forces. He is a Syrian national that in 2014 fled to Lebanon after the militia he led in Syria was defeated by Assad's forces.

Syrian and Palestinian refugees, migrant workers, lower-income detainees, sex workers or LGBT individuals are the most vulnerable groups to be tortured

This man, who will be identified as Ahmed, says he was kidnapped by Hezbollah and spent over a year in an underground unknown location suffering daily beatings the first four months. During this time his wife and children did not know his whereabouts.

After Hezbollah released him, Ahmed was detained by the Army Intelligence and accused by General Security of dealing with a member of the Al-Nusra Front (a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda). Ahmed denied the charges saying his militia whose name he declined to give - fought Al-Nusra in Syria.

He spent 21 days in an isolation cell while being interrogated. He says he was severely beaten and electrocuted every day.

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To push him to sign a confession, Ahmed's wife was detained for nine days. His wife says she was beaten once because the interrogator "was pissed off" with her. 

Ahmed signed a confession, without being allowed to read it and served a nine-month sentence on terrorism charges.

During that investigative phase he could not communicate with his lawyer. Shehade pointed out that military tribunals forbid lawyers to meet with their clients during that period, which is against the Lebanese procedural code.

Ahmed says the judge ignored him when he tried to show him evidence of torture on his hands and legs. Legislation states that if there is an allegation of torture an investigation should follow in 48 hours, including a medical examination. But that's rarely the case.

Judges normally assign prison doctors to check on the detainees. "A doctor who gets his salary from the same security authorities that has tortured my client," said lawyer Sablouh. One of his clients was subjected to electric shocks on his genitals and the judge assigned a juris doctor, but six months after the incident.

The key to stopping torture would be for the judges to accept a confession only if it was signed with a lawyer present in the interrogation, said lawyers Shehade and Sablouh. "If the judicial authorities support us in combating torture, the security authorities will not dare to continue the torture practices," said Sablouh.

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Ex-lawmaker Mukheiber argued that the main problem are the violations of the penal procedural code: period of arrest, access to a lawyer, interpreter, doctor or the right to make a phone call.

Law 65 also has shortcomings. Amnesty International's researcher Sahar Mandour criticised the statute of limitations of 3 to 10 years after the release of the victim. In her view crimes of torture should not apply. The preamble of Law 65 establishes that regular judicial courts, not military ones, will hear torture cases, but due to a loophole in the law, torture cases keep being referred to military courts.

Sablouh urged the international community to "put pressure on Lebanon" to abide by the Convention Against Torture, which in Lebanon exists "only in writing".

Alicia Medina is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter @Amesegura