Two international human rights organizations condemned the
government's move to prosecute two Lebanese citizens in a military court for "tarnishing the
reputation" of the vice police (police des moeurs), an arm of the Internal Security Forces.
On September 25, a military tribunal is scheduled to hear the case of Ziad Mugraby, the general manager of the ISP "Destination" and Kamal el-Batal, executive director of the Lebanese nongovernmental human rights organization MIRSAD, which publicized the harrassment of the ISP.
The case originated in April 2000, when police attempted to pressure people working at Destination, including Mr. Mugraby, to reveal the names of individuals involved with the Web site gaylebanon.com. MIRSAD documented and publicized internationally the harassment of the ISP. In one communique the organization "deplore[d] the blatant and unlawful attempts by the police to interfere in the freedom of the Internet as well as the freedom of expression of the gay community," and noted that "expressing opinions on behalf of the gay community is protected under the Lebanese constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
On August 5, the military prosecutor charged Batal and Mugraby with violating Article 157 of the military penal code for "tarnishing the reputation of the police des moeurs by distributing a printed flyer," namely one of the MIRSAD communiques issued on behalf of Destination. The men face three months to three years imprisonment if found guilty.
Human Rights Watch said it was deeply concerned by Lebanon's latest attempt to prosecute civilians for exercising the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression.
"This reflects increasing intolerance by the government," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Access to the Internet is an integral part of the right to free expression. And Internet service providers such as Destination should not be liable for Internet content."
Megally also criticized the criminal prosecution of Batal and Mugraby in the military court.
"Civilians should never be tried in military courts, which lack the fuller independence of the civilian judiciary," said Megally. "The fact that this case involves peaceful freedom of expression -- of the gay community and of a human rights organization defending free expression -- only makes this prosecution more egregious."
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission joined Human Rights Watch in condemning the prosecution as a threat directed at all human rights defenders in Lebanon: "As part of a broader campaign to increase its censorship and control over the Internet, the Lebanese government has targeted a vulnerable and unpopular group, lesbians and gays, but the prosecution of Mr. el Batal and Mr. Mugraby shows that everyone's rights are at stake and no one should stand by idly," said Kamal Fizazi, Regional Program Officer for Africa and Southwest Asia.
"Prosecuting Kamal el Batal for criticizing police harrassment and interference with free expression sends a message that no critic of the authorities is safe," Fizazi continued, noting that while Lebanon has always prided itself as being tolerant of and celebrating diversity and freedom of expression, with this action Lebanese authorities are stifling both.
The case against Batal and Mugraby began on April 3, 2000. According to a communique issued by MIRSAD on April 13, two police officers from the vice squad, who were wearing plain clothes, entered the offices of Destination on April 3. They did not have a search warrant but were carrying written instructions from superiors to identify the owners of a specific Internet address with content related to the Lebanese gay community. According to MIRSAD, the employees of Destination "were harassed and were ordered not to make any outgoing phone calls during the visit. After interrogating Destination's technical personnel they confiscated the personal ID of a senior staff member and ordered him to appear at their office at the Hobaich Police station...the next day for further interrogation."
A lawyer for Destination later learned from the colonel who heads the vice squad that the colonel believed the ISP was "broadcasting" immoral films. The lawyer explained to the colonel that ISPs did not "broadcast" and that users were able to navigate the Web freely.
The next day, a senior staff member of Destination, accompanied by one of Destination's lawyers, visited the Hobaich Police Station. According to MIRSAD's report: "One of the officers who entered Destination's offices, a captain, interrogated the staffer further. Part of the interrogation was conducted in a rude manner and without permitting the lawyer to sit in. It turned out that the particular Web site pursued by the police belonged to a non-resident group and [was] hosted in the United States. Destination had nothing to do with the site that offended the police."
MIRSAD further reported in a communique dated April 18 that the previous day Ziad Mugraby was summoned to the vice squad headquarters at the Hobaich police station. Police said that they were carrying out instructions from Beirut prosecutor Joseph Maamari to collect information for prosecution of the person or persons who financed or installed the Web site gaylebanon.com. Mugraby was threatened with closure of Destination unless he provided the information.
MIRSAD on April 18 also expressed its concern about a wider censorship campaign, and noted that a new Internet backbone might be based in Damascus, Syria, so that all Lebanese Internet connections and traffic would be routed through Syria.
There were no further developments until July 21, when MIRSAD's director, Kamal el Batal, was summoned for questioning at the Hobaich Police Station. He was asked about the communiques the organization had issued in April on behalf of Destination and freedom of expression, and about MIRSAD's investigative methodology and sources of information. In another communique, issued the same day, Batal reported what had happened, clarified the role of MIRSAD as a human rights organization, and noted "the positive attitude of the interrogating officers."