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New Lebanese Law Against Torture a Good but Incomplete Step

Lebanon- Hamza al-Khatib
Lebanese Muslim Sunni men hold pictures of 13-year-old Syrian boy Hamza al-Khatib, who was allegedly tortured and killed by security forces, during a demonstration against the Syrian regime in the Sunni neighbourhood of al-Kobbeh in the coastal city of Triopoli, north of Beirut, on June 24, 2011. Photo AFP

Detainees in Lebanon will no longer be subjected to torture, according to a law passed by the parliament in late September 2017. An amendment to Article 401 of the Penal Code criminalizes the use of torture to extract confessions. However, local and international human rights organizations say it does not go far enough.

Lebanon’s first move towards more regulation came in October 2016, when the parliament adopted a a law establishing the National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), which would include an independent committee to investigate the use of torture and issue recommendations to improve the treatment of detainees. More than a year on, the members of this committee have yet to be nominated, preventing its actual implementation.

Nevertheless, the amendment to Article 401 is intended as a complement to this law. This is despite the fact that 72 per cent of Lebanese people think torture is justified  against suspects of terrorism, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of 38 countries. In July 2017, the army arrested around 350 Syrian refugees ‘suspected of terrorism’ in the border town of Arsal. Four of them later died in custody. Diala Chehade, the lawyer representing their families, was followed, threatened and intimidated by security forces while trying to establish how the victims died.

The official reports claimed that physical violence was not to blame for the deaths. This was disputed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report published on 20 July 2017 that stated: ‘Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head. Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.’

A proper law was thus long overdue. Drafted by MP Ghassan Moukheiber in 2012 with the help of human rights lawyers and organizations, the proposed anti-torture act was eventually watered down to an amendment after parliament softened the text.

This angered human rights activists who were consulted on the original draft. Saadeddine Shatila, the head of the Lebanese branch of the human rights group al-Karama Foundation, told The Daily Star, “The definition of torture and punishment for the act has been poorly amended. Our original definition was based upon the [definition used by the United Nations Committee against Torture] and included acts defined as ill-treatment. This has been significantly reduced with no mention of ill-treatment.”

In a subsequent report published on 13 November 2017, HRW stated, ‘The new law precludes any excuse or justification for the use of torture, prohibits the use of testimony extracted under torture as evidence except against a person accused of committing torture, and provides special procedures for investigating allegations of torture and witness protection. It also provides for rehabilitation and compensation for victims but includes no detail or guidance for carrying out those provisions. And it fails to criminalize cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and limits the definition of torture to situations of investigation, interrogation, judicial investigation, trial and punishment.”

The penalties also depend on the effect of torture on a person, from one to three years in prison for no lasting physical or psychological harm, three to seven years for a temporary disability, five to ten years if the harm is permanent, and ten to 20 years if it results in death.

Bassam Khawaja, a researcher for HRW Lebanon and Kuwait, told Fanack Chronicle, “This law is a big step forward for Lebanon’s ability to prosecute cases of torture. Previously, Lebanon did not have a law criminalizing torture, only a provision that criminalized extracting a confession through violence. This new law broadens the definition of torture, imposes stricter sentences of one to 20 years in prison, and establishes procedures for investigating torture. However, it does not fully comply with Lebanon’s international obligations, and Lebanon should amend the law to reflect the internationally recognized definition of torture.”

Chehade was less positive, arguing that the law is “insufficient and does not truly cover the gaps concerning the procedural rights of suspects at the primary interrogation level”. She added , “It could be made better by allowing the suspects’ representatives to be present at this level, whether it occurs at the General Security, with the army or at a police station.”

Although it is too early to judge the law, Khawaja said, “The real test [will be] whether prosecutors actually use it to seek justice for victims of torture. The law itself is a new tool, but impunity for torture is rampant in Lebanon. That will not change until prosecutors actually use the law to go after credible allegations of torture. The law also contains vague but important provisions for witness protection and rehabilitation and compensation for victims. Judges should make use of those provisions to protect those who come forward to speak out about torture.”

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