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In Lebanon, Ruling on Same-sex Relations Groundbreaking but Does Not Go Far Enough

Specials- Lebanese LGBT
Activists from of the Lebanese LGBT community take part in a protest outside a police station in Beirut on May 15, 2016, demanding the release of four transsexual women and calling for the abolishment of article 534 of the Lebanese Penal code, which prohibits having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature”. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ ANWAR AMRO

A district court of appeal in Lebanon has issued a ruling that consensual sex between people of the same gender is not unlawful. Although this ruling is legally significant, there is still a long way to go until homosexuals are safe in the country.

The ruling follows similar judgments by lower courts that have declined to convict gay and transgender people for ‘sexual intercourse contrary to nature’ in four separate rulings between 2007 and 2017. In 2009, for instance, a judge ruled that homosexuality cannot be against human nature since man ‘is part of nature’. In 2014, judges decreed that sex between a transgender individual, previously a man, and another man could not be perceived as unnatural. In 2017, a judge declared that ‘homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offence’.

The most recent ruling, which upheld the acquittal from 2017, is the first of its kind from an appeals court and moves Lebanon toward decriminalization of homosexual conduct.

“This last judgment shows us that it’s clear that judges are willing to interpret unnatural sex acts as excluding consensual sex between same-sex partners,” said Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “But the parliament needs to reform the Penal Code in order to remove Article 534 [which states that homosexual acts are punishable by up to a year in prison]. As long as it exists, LGBT people will continue to be prosecuted.”

HRW published a report in April 2018 about LGBT activism in the MENA region, including Lebanon, which practiced forced anal examinations until 2015, three years after the Lebanese Order of Physicians issued a directive stating: ‘It is scientifically established that this procedure is not even qualified as an experimental procedure. It does not provide the needed result and is considered a grave violation against the people who undergo it, and it is done without their prior consent. It is a humiliating practice that violates their dignity, and it is torture according to the definition of CAT [Convention against Torture].’

The directive was followed by pressure from the Ministry of Justice to ban anal examinations. Although the practice appears to have ended, it has not been legally prohibited.

Georges Azzi, executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, told Human Rights Watch that the defence lawyers involved in the 2018 decision worked closely with LGBT rights organizations to make the argument that consensual homosexual acts should not be considered ‘against nature’.

Other LGBT defence and advocacy organizations such as Helem and Legal Agenda worked on a document entitled ‘Ideal defence in matters of LGBT’ to help guide judges whenever someone is prosecuted under Article 534. “The 2017 decision relied on our work,” Helem coordinator Joseph Aoun told Fanack Chronicle. “Homosexuals have a natural right to exist without persecution, and the state should protect the rights of all people.”

Alongside the right to exist, the LGBT’s community right to assemble has come under attack. In 2017, the Beirut Pride, which was organized to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, went on despite threats. However, a related conference was cancelled for security reasons. In 2018, the Beirut Pride itself was cancelled, after organizer Hadi Damien was arrested.

“It appears that the main reason for my requisition is that the Public Prosecution received an Arabic version of the program of Beirut Pride that was completely distorted, [citing] debauchery [and] disrespect of general law, while using derogatory terms to refer to LGBT individuals,” Damien wrote on the Beirut Pride website.

“[Such discrimination is] a sign that LGBT people don’t have access to the full extent of their rights in Lebanon”, Fakih told Fanack chronicle. “Here, it’s the rights of assembly and expression that are being targeted. There is indeed some progress, but what we see is that laws [intended to uphold these rights] are violated.”

Another positive step was taken when around 100 candidates in the May 2018 parliamentary elections called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. “Before now, there was no politician that was able to publicly endorse the removal of Article 534,” Azzi told CNN.

So far, however, no national decision has been made to turn this call into more than words. Even with a more progressive legal system, social attitudes will have to change before the LGBT community is completely safe. On 17 September 2018, a gay activist was beaten in Beirut because his attackers did not like the way he looked.

Meanwhile, the LGBT community celebrates every small victory and keeps on fighting, hopeful that things will change for good.

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