Five years after civil society activists and MP Ghassan Moukheiber first drafted a strengthened anti-torture law, the final watered-down legislation published Thursday was met with disappointment from those who helped craft the original draft. “Of course I’m not happy,” Suzanne Jabbour, executive director at the Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, told The Daily Star.
“I’m not happy at all.”
“Our expectation was to have an anti-torture act, not an amendment to Article 401. It does not match the level of hard work we’ve put in over the years fighting and lobbying,” she said.
In its original form, Article 401 establishes a limited definition of torture in Lebanon’s legal texts but exempts cases of mental and psychological abuse.
Georges Ghali, programs director at ALEF – Act for Human Rights, was equally disappointed. “It’s definitely not ideal, we still want to see more changes because our initial proposal was much more comprehensive,” Ghali said. At least, Ghali noted, the modern update was an upgrade from the original “archaic penal code.”
Following Moukheiber’s submission of the draft to Parliament in 2012, the text underwent review and revision by a Parliamentary committee, Cabinet and finally the president before its publication in the Official Gazette. Multiple attempts by The Daily Star to reach MP Ghassan Moukheiber were unsuccessful.
Both Jabbour and Ghali were among the original group consulting and contributing to the draft law.
The 29-month-long presidential vacuum that ensued at the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s tenure in May 2014 halted legislation from moving forward.
Progress picked up last October with the election of President Michel Aoun. Coupled with Lebanon’s appearance before the United Nations Committee against Torture in Geneva in late April, and under mounting international pressure, Parliament was tasked with passing a new law.
April’s hearing marked the first time Lebanon had appeared before the committee since ratifying the Convention against Torture in 2000.
The conclusions of the review, to little surprise among civil society, made clear that much work had to be done before Lebanon would meet the set standards of the international convention. Members of civil society had hoped the original rendition of Article 401, which maintained a limited definition of torture, exempting cases of mental and psychological abuse, would be replaced. The scant law, according to human rights groups, also failed to bring proper justice against perpetrators and cases of impunity were frequently reported.
Saadeddine Shatila, head of the Lebanese branch of the human rights group Al-Karama Foundation, expressed his frustrations with changes made from the draft. Also a contributor, he highlighted two of many revisions that rendered the new legislation feeble.
“The definition of torture and punishment for the act has been poorly amended,” Shatila told The Daily Star. “Our original definition was based upon the [United Nations Committee against Torture] and included acts defined as ill-treatment. This has been significantly reduced with no mention of ill-treatment.”
While the passed law limits torture to acts taking place “under investigation, preliminary investigation, judicial investigations trials and executions of sentences,” Shatila explained that many acts of torture and abuse carried out by security forces are likely to take place before an official arrest.
While the original draft called for trials of torture cases to be held in civilian courts, the updated law has ignored the proposal, with all future trials set to be held at the Military Court. This, Shatila said, was a grave issue as the majority of torture takes place at the military level. According to the activist, pursuing these cases at the Military Court is often difficult.
“Lebanon felt it was under pressure because of the UNCAT deadline set before next May. While this pressure pushed them to pass a law, they, unfortunately, did not create anything productive,” Shatila added.
Jabbour, who vocalized her intentions to investigate the amendment further with a full legal team, lamented Thursday’s news as a failure for the Lebanese people.
“We’re not seeking to criminalize torture to satisfy any international committee,” she said. “We’re not looking to satisfy anyone else. It’s to guarantee the protection of our citizens, our people. This [fight] was for any person who might find themselves to be at the wrong place at the wrong time one day.”
However, all three activists agreed that it was better than nothing.