Don’t Try Civilians in Military Courts; Drop Unsubstantiated Terrorism Charges
Security forces force anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the center Tripoli, Lebanon, on January 31, 2021 amidst clashes.© 2021 FATHI AL-MASRI/AFP via Getty Images
(Beirut) – Lebanese Military Intelligence forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured detainees who were participating in protests against the Covid-19 lockdown and deteriorating economic conditions in Tripoli, Human Rights Watch said today. These individuals face apparently unsubstantiated terrorism charges before the country’s military courts, which are inherently unfair, and under international law should not have jurisdiction over civilians.
On February 22, 2021, Lebanon’s military prosecutor charged at least 35 people, including at least 2 children, with terrorism, forming criminal associations, and stealing public property during protests in the northern city of Tripoli during the last week of January 2021. The defendants also face other charges, including using force against and trying to kill members of the security forces, arson, vandalism, and protesting without permission.
“Lebanese authorities should address the legitimate grievances of people in Tripoli but instead they’ve escalated repression against a population fighting for a dignified life,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to answer for disappearing and any torture of detainees and drop all unsubstantiated terrorism charges against them.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with five detainees, the families of five protesters, two lawyers involved in the case, a judicial source, and Police Commander Major General Imad Othman. The army did not respond to a Human Rights Watch request for comment. Those interviewed said that there were some incidents of violence during the protests, and some participants threw Molotov cocktails at security forces and set government buildings on fire. But the people interviewed said the defendants in the terrorism case had not been engaged in such serious violence and were not shown any evidence to the contrary. One family member said that her son, then 15, was tortured into confessing to crimes he did not commit.
Four of the 35 people charged in the case remain in detention and 19, including the children, were released. The authorities have refused to identify the other 12 defendants, citing the “secrecy” of the investigations, lawyers working on the case told Human Rights Watch. Ayman Raad, who represents six of those charged, said that the military investigative judge told him that “the defendants will know they are charged when they are called in for interrogation.”
The lawyers said that 19 people were arrested at their homes, workplaces, or on the street, and four were summoned to the Defense Ministry. Most of those arrested were forcibly disappeared for periods of one to five days in Military Intelligence facilities, lawyers said. The lawyers said that families and lawyers sought information about them at intelligence and police stations in the Bekaa and Tripoli where they were last seen, but that security agencies denied having any information about them.
“I didn’t leave a person or a place that I didn’t ask,” said the mother of Tarek Badawiyyeh, 28, one of the detainees. “But no one knew … I thought maybe someone beat him or killed him, you know the situation in the country. For three days, I was living in hell. I thought my child was gone.”
Enforced disappearances, when state authorities detain a person but then refuse to reveal their whereabouts or fate, are serious crimes under international law and prohibited at all times. The prohibition includes a duty to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible.
All the detainees, except the four summoned to the Defense Ministry, were interrogated without a lawyer present, the lawyers and their families said, violating Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Thirteen of the detainees were interrogated by Military Intelligence, the lawyers said, and two were interrogated by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Information Branch officers, Major General Imad Othman said. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have routinely documented the violations of Article 47, especially during Military Intelligence interrogations.
Ali Hashem, 34, said that officers from the Military Intelligence branch in Chtoura beat, slapped, and kicked him while he was blindfolded and handcuffed, hurling insults at him: “They told me, ‘You want freedom? Fuck your freedom.’” Hashem said he described his torture to the military investigative judge.
Another detainee said that Military Intelligence officers beat him at one of their branches and at the Defense Ministry. At the Defense Ministry, “they threatened me and started beating me and telling me that we want to torture you so that you implicate [another protester]. They said we will hang you in the balance,” a reference to hanging a torture victim by their wrists tied behind the back. The detainee said that he told the military investigative judge that he falsely implicated another protester due to the torture.
A 15-year-old protester who was arrested at a gas station while filling a container with gasoline was taken to Military Intelligence in Qobbeh, where he was beaten, subjected to falaka (beating on the soles of the feet), and threatened with electric shocks, his mother said. She said her son just started saying “yes” to whatever was asked of him, even things he knows nothing about. Later at the Defense Ministry, she said, an officer kicked him and punched him in the stomach. He spent his sixteenth birthday in detention, she said.
Lebanon passed an anti-torture law in 2017. But Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon since then. The authorities have failed to properly investigate the allegations, and justice for torture in detention remains elusive.
Lawyers and the judicial source said that the military prosecutor charged all the suspects with the same crimes, including terrorism and theft, without specifying the evidence against each individual. They said their clients were not shown any video or other evidence implicating them in the crimes, and that the allegations were based only on “information” and “informants or other confessions.” Under Lebanese law and international human rights law, defendants have the right to know the criminal charges against them and the evidence on which charges are based, including exculpatory evidence.
“If the Lebanese authorities think there is any substance to these charges, they should refer the case to the civilian courts, ensure that the accused receive a fair trial, and investigate the serious allegations of enforced disappearance, torture, and denial of due process,” Majzoub said. “States that provide support to Lebanon’s security agencies should ensure that they are not funding serious abuses.”
Due Process Violations
Defendants, lawyers, and family members said that only the four detainees who turned themselves in to the Defense Ministry had a lawyer present during their preliminary interrogations. The other 19 detainees were denied this right, with security agencies falsely claiming that the defendants said that they did not want a lawyer.