New Lebanese law against torture draws ambivalent reaction

New Lebanese law against torture draws ambivalent reaction
In-depth: Lebanon's new law on the prohibition of torture falls short of what's needed, writes Kareem Chehayeb.
6 min read
31 October, 2017
A Syrian man protests the use of torture in Beirut [AFP]

Lebanon's new torture law went into effect last Thursday, after Parliament originally voted for the draft law back in September.

In collaboration with human rights groups in Lebanon, the new law was drafted and presented to Parliament by MP Ghassan Mukheiber back in 2012.

"This [new law] is a big step forward, in my opinion," Mukheiber told The New Arab.

"Lebanon has set up the right foundation to criminalize the practice of torture."

The MP added that the drafting process was done in consultation with local human rights groups.

However, those same activist groups have told The New Arab that, while the law is a step forward, it still has its shortcomings.

"What is certain is that the law is better than what we [previously] had," Georges Ghali, Programs Manager for local human rights organization ALEF, explained to The New Arab.

"[The law has a] potential positive impact if properly implemented."

Ghali, who is among the human rights activists consulted with the draft law back in 2012, said it is far too early to indicate how the new law will play out.

Other activists who were consulted outright condemned the law, such as Suzanne Jabbour, executive director at the Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture.

She simply told Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, "I'm not happy at all." She added that the new law was merely an amendment of the old one.

Claims of vague and limited language (and other shortcomings)

Human rights lawyer at the Geneva-headquartered Alkarama Foundation, Inès Osman, believes that the definition of torture in the law is "too restrictive."

"[The definition] only includes acts committed during the investigation or after," Osman told The New Arab.

"Technically, it excludes cases in which individuals were tortured during the arrest or held in administrative detention."

"Another shortfall of the law is its weak criminalization," Ghali added.

"Torture acts satisfying the definition will largely be considered as [a] misdemeanor."

Under the new law, if the victim does not die under torture or suffer a permanent injury, the torturer only receives one to three years in jail.

Ghali told The New Arab that what is considered a permanent injury or injury with a permanent marking is vague.

"People could be waterboarded, a [torture] technique that would leave no markings," he said. "Are we encouraging perpetrators to choose torture techniques that allows impunity, or better sentencing?

In response to these claims, MP Mukheiber told The New Arab that they must have "misread the [new] law," adding that the law is fully in compliance with Lebanon's obligations under international law.

Lebanon ratified the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in 2008 and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment back in 2000.

The previous law did not fulfill its international obligations, but the United Nations' verdict is yet to be seen.

Syrian refugees and Lebanon's "war on terror"

Lebanon's heightened security situation alongside the Syrian conflict next door has added a new angle on the subject of torture and ill treatment.

On June 30, 2017, a routine military raid on two refugee camps in northeast Arsal by the Syrian border ounded both Syrian refugees and Lebanese soldiers, and the death of a Syrian child.  Narratives on the causes of the injuries and deaths clash; the Lebanese Army reported that militants hiding in the camps detonated themselves.

However, the controversy didn't stop there. After the Lebanese Army arrested around 350 refugees, it was later announced that four died under their custody.

Read more: Syrian refugees 'tortured' during Lebanese military raid on camp

Claiming it was due to natural causes, the four refugees' families, represented by Lebanese lawyer Diala Chehade alleged it was in fact death under torture.

The army said that they died prior to the interrogation due to pre-existing health conditions exacerbated by the summer heat.

While Chehade was stopped by the army from testing the medical samples she retrieved from the bodies, human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the photos of the bodies show signs of torture.

A military investigation later concluded that the four refugees did not die of torture or ill treatment.

Chehade told The New Arab that torture is definitely one of Lebanon's most pressing human rights issues, and that Syrians who oppose Assad are among the most vulnerable.

"Suspects who are tortured often admit to crimes [they are accused of] and that would be the only evidence used in court," she added.

The Lebanese lawyer explained that she is concerned with how the new law will play out when it comes to Syrian refugees and other marginalized communities, Lebanese or otherwise.

"Those [Syrians] who were tortured told me that they were threatened with being returned to Syria [authorities]," Chehade added, expressing her concern that this could be a way to sidestep Lebanon's legal obligations against forced returns – or refoulement.

Osman echoed similar sentiments to Chehade.

"[Lebanese] security services remain powerful," she said.

"The authorities might not want to put too much pressure on them in the context of the Syrian [refugee] crisis [or] fight against terrorism."

Towards erasing a dark stain from Lebanon's history

MP Moukheiber remains optimistic, considering that the new law includes the formation of a human rights committee.

"The committee will be a national body to guarantee [the law is implemented]," he told The New Arab.

While Chehade welcomed the formation of the body, she believes that lawyers should have primary access to clients.

"The [state human rights] committee doesn't have a relationship with the suspect like a lawyer would," she explained.

"A lawyer would have a direct interest in protecting their client, whether they're Lebanese, Syrian, or of another nationality."

Parliament announced the formation of the state human rights committee back when the draft law was voted in Parliament in September 2016. However, there has been no news about who is part of the committee.

"There have been delays in Cabinet in naming the committee based on nominations," Moukheiber told The New Arab.

"I'm hopeful that we will see it through in the coming months."

Lebanon's human rights activists say that the next phase to end torture will be tough, but more crucial than ever.

"Certainly now we are in front of a tough uphill to make further changes and it might take years to create that opportunity," Ghali said.

"But we will keep advocating for a larger legislative framework that would further criminalize torture and further prevent torture."

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.