June 26, 2013


Mohammad, 30, spent 11 days in detention in the Zahleh police station in 2007 after police arrested him for drug possession. He told Human Rights Watch that the police beat him severely until he confessed to using drugs. He said, “They took me to interrogation naked, poured cold water on me, tied me to a desk with a chain, and hung me in the farrouj position.[1] They broke all my teeth and nose, and hit me with a gun until my shoulder was dislocated.”

Mohammad’s case is not unique. Ill-treatment and torture of detainees are serious problems in Lebanese police stations and in other pre-trial detention facilities manned by other security institutions.

This report focuses on torture and ill-treatment by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) which is Lebanon’s main police force, and in particular the Drug Repression Bureau and members of the ISF who enforce “morality-related” laws against drug users, sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. What these three groups have in common are their precarious status under Lebanese law as well as social stigma that renders them particularly vulnerable to police abuse. Human Rights Watch has reported in the past on ISF ill-treatment of migrants as well as intelligence service torture of security suspects.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 people, including 25 women, arrested for suspected drug use, sex work, or homosexuality over the past five years whom ISF members had threatened, humiliated, or tortured.

The most common forms of torture reported to Human Rights Watch were beatings on different parts of the body with fists, boots, or implements such as sticks, canes, and rulers. Seventeen former detainees reported being denied food, water, or medication when they needed it, or of having their medication confiscated. Nine individuals reported being handcuffed in bathrooms or in extremely uncomfortable positions for hours at a time. Eleven said ISF personnel forced them to listen to the screams of other detainees in an effort to scare them into cooperating or confessing.

Twenty-one women we spoke with reported that police had subjected them to some form of sexual violence or coercion, ranging from sexual assault to offering them “favors” (such as cigarettes, food, more comfortable conditions in their cells, or even a more lenient police report) in exchange for sex.

According to the experts and former detainees we spoke with, the police do little to hide their disdain of drug users, sex workers, and LGBT people. Verbal abuse, degradation, and humiliation appear to be so common that many victims tended to gloss over them when telling their stories. To them, the practices were so common that they appeared unremarkable. Physical violence was not just used to extract confessions but also as a form of punishment, discipline, and behavioral correction. Sex workers and female drug users appeared to be at particular risk for sexual assault and blackmail.

The detainees we spoke with experienced torture and mistreatment at Beirut’s Hobeish police station, Gemmayze police station, Baabda police station, Msaitbeh police station, Zahleh police station, Ouzai police station, the Saida police station, police intelligence in Jdeideh, and in pre-trial detention in Baabda women’s prison. Similar abuses may occur at other police stations and prisons as well, but we did not research conditions at those other facilities.

The ill-treatment and torture were accompanied by other key violations. Interviewees reported police denying them phone calls to family members, access to lawyers, and medical care when needed. While article 47 of Lebanon’s Code of Criminal Procedure limits detention without charge to 48 hours, renewable once with permission from the public prosecutor, this limit is often violated in practice. Additionally, police do not always inform suspects of the charges brought against them, a violation of international and domestic law, including article 76 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Lebanon’s authorities are aware of the problem but have failed to take steps to address it. A high-ranking official in the ISF, Brigadier Charbel Matar, speaking on behalf of Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, admitted that torture does take place in investigation rooms and detention centers. At a public meeting of an EU-funded project that works to prevent torture and rehabilitate victims, Matar said that “everyone is responsible” for torture, including police officers and “lawyers who intervene to pressure a detainee and judges who exert pressure on police investigators to hurry up or get a confession and turn a blind eye to a detainee in a miserable health situation that has resulted from beating or torture.”[2]

Torture and ill-treatment by the ISF are grounded in (1) laws that are inadequate or badly implemented, (2) a judicial system that puts too much emphasis on obtaining confessions during investigations, (3) a rampant culture of impunity, and (4) lack of proper oversight mechanisms.

Even though Lebanon has ratified the Convention against Torture, the definition of torturein the Lebanese Penal Codefalls short of the international standards set out in the convention. For example, the Lebanese definition limits torture to acts carried out with the purpose of extracting a confession or obtaining information, ignoring the myriad other reasons detainees are mistreated while in custody.

Inadequate provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure compound the problem. There is no legal guarantee, for example, that a detainee has access to a lawyer during interrogation by the police.

Even when laws do exist, they are often not implemented properly. Although detainees have the right to request medical attention, many of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said this right had been denied in practice. Twelve detainees interviewed for this report reported that they had requested to see a doctor during their initial detention at the police station but that their request had been denied. Twenty-two detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were brought before investigative judges without the presence of a lawyer guaranteed to them by law.

The over-reliance on confessions in the investigative process, coupled with the denial of access to lawyers during the crucial phase of preliminary questioning by the police, allow for unchecked abuse and mistreatment of suspects. Twenty-three individuals told Human Rights Watch that police extracted confessions from them through mental and physical coercion. In some cases the confessions were false, and in others they amounted to the only piece of evidence presented to support charges against them.

In only three cases reviewed in this report did the investigative judge order an investigation into allegations that confessions were made under duress.

Oversight of security forces is inadequate and complaints mechanisms are weak. The mechanisms that do exist, such as the ISF’s human rights committee, are ineffective, understaffed, and exercise no real power. A separate complaints mechanism does exist, but it is flawed and difficult to navigate and follow-up.

How the arrest and initial detention of a person unfold have a profound effect on the ability of the judicial system to uphold fair trial standards set forth in both domestic law and in Lebanon’s international commitments. Confessions extracted through torture, arbitrary detention, and failure to bring detainees before investigative judges all contribute to undermining the ability of the judicial system to ensure fair trials.

Access to redress is particularly difficult for members of vulnerable groups, such as sex workers, drug users, and LGBT people. While there are mechanisms in place to file formal complaints, logistical, social, and structural obstacles render the system woefully inadequate to ensure accountability for wrongdoing.

Twelve individuals told Human Rights Watch that police officers threatened and warned them outright against reporting. In addition, five former detainees told Human Rights Watch that investigative judges dismissed their allegations of mistreatment, intimidation, and abuse without further inquiries. Of the 49 people we interviewed that alleged ill-treatment, only 6 filed a complaint. Only two of those interviewed reported that a police officer was subsequently disciplined.

Members of marginalized social groups face further obstacles to reporting and redress. Drug users fear exposure of their conduct, LGBT people fear exposure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, while sex workers fear exposure of the nature of their work. Simply being identified as a drug user, sex worker, or LGBT person can lead to negative social consequences. The ways in which laws that criminalize sex work, homosexuality, and personal drug use are implemented exacerbate the problem and present a major obstacle to reporting police abuse. This can only be addressed through a re-examination of these laws.

The law regulating sex work, which dates from 1931, stipulates that female sex workers must be registered and must undergo medical examinations, cannot be virgins, and must be older than 21. Article 7 of the law stipulates that sex workers can only practice sex work inside brothels, and article 523 of the Lebanese Penal Code punishes “any person who practices secret prostitution or facilitates it” with a prison sentence ranging from one month to one year. Although the law remains on the books, in practice the government does not issue licenses, leaving virtually all sex workers vulnerable to arrest for practicing prostitution without being registered.

Homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in Lebanon. Rather, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code states that “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature is punishable by up to one year in prison.” This provision has been used mainly to prosecute people suspected of homosexuality even though the law does not specify what might constitute “contrary to the order of nature,” leaving a large margin of interpretation to individual judges.

Drug use or possession is punishable in Lebanon by up to six months in prison and a fine. The law does not differentiate between the type of drugs used. Additionally, individuals that are convicted of selling illegal drugs or of the loosely defined act of “facilitating the consumption of drugs in any way” are given harsher prison sentences.

In the last few years, Lebanon has taken a number of steps to expand and reform the ISF, but these efforts remain inadequate and have not addressed ongoing abuses by ISF personnel.  In 2008, the ISF established a Human Rights Department tasked with spreading awareness of human rights within the ISF and conducting trainings and compiling studies on various human rights issues. In 2011, the ISF also launched a committee to monitor torture in prisons. While these are welcome developments, these bodies exercise no effective authority and do not possess any investigative powers.

In January 2011, the ISF launched a new Code of Conduct setting out standards of behavior and obligations rooted in Lebanese law and international human rights principles, although its full and proper implementation remains to be seen.

Over the past few years, donors such as the US, the EU, the UK, and France have invested significant amounts of money in equipping, training, and improving the ISF. Many of these programs are focused on training and equipping the ISF. While human rights are included in the training, the cases documented in this report give reason for concern as to whether it is effective.

There have also been other recent positive developments. The Minister of Justice issued a decree in August 2012 urging a ban on anal examinations for men suspected of homosexuality, one of the most humiliating forms of pseudo-scientific investigation. These examinations are medically and scientifically useless, and also violate international standards against torture and ill-treatment. Following public outcry at the use of such examinations after police arrested 36 men for suspected homosexuality in a theatre in a suburb of Beirut, local civil society groups, with a group called The Legal Agenda at the helm, successfully lobbied both the syndicate of doctors as well as the Ministry of Justice to ban the examinations.

Lebanon should uphold its international commitments by amending its definition of torture and implementing the provisions it committed to when it signed the Convention against Torture and the convention’s Optional Protocol, particularly the creation of a “national preventive mechanism,” an independent body tasked with monitoring detention centers. Most importantly, Lebanon should be transparent in ensuring accountability for ISF members who commit abuses, and should create effective and accessible complaints mechanisms to ensure that happens. It should also revise its Code of Criminal Procedure to better safeguard the rights of detainees and repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality, drug use, and sex work.

[1] A torture technique in which the victim is suspended by the feet with hands tied together to an iron bar passed under the knees. See Human Rights Watch, Syria: Documented Torture Methods, presentation, June 28, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/features/syria-documented-torture-methods

[2] “Qortbawi: Lebanon has not implemented anti-torture protocols”, The Daily Star (Beirut), February 15, 2012 http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/Feb-15/163311-qortbawi-lebanon-has-not-implemented-anti-torture-protocols.ashx#axzz1mJodNvQJ (accessed February 4, 2013).