BEIRUT (AP) – Haldun Jaber took part in an anti-government protest near the presidential palace near Beirut last November, when several Lebanese plainclothes spies approached and forced him to be taken away.
The demonstration was part of a wave of protests in Lebanon against corruption and mismanagement by a group of politicians who monopolized power after the country’s civil war ended three decades ago.
Jaber did not know it at the time, but Lebanese security forces targeted him for posting on social media criticizing President Michel Aoun. He was followed by 48 torturous hours of detention, during which security officers interrogated and physically abused him before releasing him.
“I was beaten, psychologically and morally hurt,”
“I’m still traumatized,” he added.
One year after mass protests rocked Lebanon, dozens of protesters have been tried in military courts, proceedings that human rights lawyers say are grossly violating due process and failing to investigate allegations of torture and abuse. Defendants on trial at the military tribunal say the system is being used to intimidate protesters and aid Lebanese sectarian rulers.
So far, about 90 civilians have been targeted at the military justice system, according to the Legal Agenda, a human rights group based in Beirut.
“We expect many more people to be persecuted,” said Guida Frangich, a lawyer for the group.
The trials underscore the growing danger of activism in Lebanon, where a series of lawsuits and investigations against journalists and critics have undermined the country’s reputation for freedom of speech and tolerance in a largely autocratic Arab world.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Nyme did not respond to a request for comment. Lebanese officials usually do not address the question of why civil cases are heard in the military judiciary. Security forces have denied beating and torturing detained protesters and activists.
Frangie said security forces had arrested about 1,200 people from the start of the anti-government uprising in October 2019 to the end of June. Lebanese authorities have prosecuted about 200 of them, including those referred to the military judiciary, the monitoring group found.
Two months after his arrest, Jaber received an official notice stating that military prosecutors were accusing him of attacking security forces at Baabda Palace when he was detained by plainclothes agents.
“I was shocked when I was summoned to the military tribunal,” Jaber said.
The trial did not take place until October 7, when a military court found Jaber not guilty of attacking security officials, a war crime under Lebanese law, but said he had no jurisdiction over a second charge, insulting the president.
Like Jaber, many detained protesters realized only a month or more after their release that authorities had referred them to military courts. Many of these cases were scheduled for court hearings in November and December, Frangi said, before the country was blocked for two weeks for the coronavirus pandemic to temporarily close its courts.
Jaber’s case is an example of how military prosecutors try to claim jurisdiction in civil cases, usually filing more than one charge, including one that is a war crime, said Frangi, who represents protesters before the military tribunal and is also part of Protesters’ Advocacy Committee.
“There was no evidence,” Franji said of Jaber’s accusation of assaulting security officials. “He was abducted during a protest, but was actually targeted for his social media posts criticizing the president.”
The military prosecutor’s office closed, without investigation, a torture complaint filed by Jaber, she added.
According to the legal program, military courts usually issue summary decisions on the same day of the trial without giving an explanation.
“Indeed, there are many doubts about the fairness and arbitrariness of court rulings,” she said, adding that when defendants are convicted, the legal basis of the sentence is not immediately shared with their lawyers.
Military prosecutors often neglect to read complete case files from military intelligence reports, or abruptly revoke or modify allegations during the trial, according to Frangie and another lawyer on the commission representing the protesters, Ayman Raad.
“Military courts have no business judging civilians,” said Aya Majzub, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. The International Rights Group has called on the Lebanese parliament to end the disturbing practice by passing a law to completely remove civilians from the jurisdiction of the military tribunal.
Georges Abu Fadel was called up for military action on October 30th after being detained during a protest a year ago in the town of Beit Mary, east of Beirut. During his trial, the military prosecutor asked the judge for time to read the report on the case, after which he asked to change the charge against Abu Fadel from an attack by the security forces to a lesser charge of non-compulsory resistance to the arrest.
The court found him not guilty, but Abu Fadel said he was not relieved, knowing that there would be more trials “for my friends, for the people who are protesting, for anyone who tries to claim his rights.”
Lawyers, human rights defenders and defendants describe the prosecution of military tribunals against protesters and other civilians as another node in Lebanon’s sectarian system that defends the power of its top politicians, not the rights of citizens.
“This is one of the tools used by sectarian parties,” Abu Fadel said, keeping his people loyal for fear of military courts.
Many judges at the military tribunal are appointed by the defense ministry, which undermines the tribunal’s judicial independence, according to human rights activists. The head of a military tribunal is usually a Shiite, while the chief military prosecutor is Maronit Christian.
Reforming the Lebanese judiciary is “one of the most important demands” of anti-government protesters, Raad said, including ending civilian trials.
On November 13, Jed Al Reyes was fined 200,000 Lebanese pounds ($ 132) by a military tribunal, 11 months after security forces detained him in protest on the Beirut Ring Road. The court has not yet issued a statement with the indictment for which he was convicted.
The 32-year-old said he planned to emigrate from Lebanon.
“We will not make any progress without blood, and I do not want to be involved,” he said.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam of Beirut contributed to this report.