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On Monday, one of Lebanon’s prominent human rights lawyers is due to appear before a Beirut military court on slander charges for having denounced the authorities’ use of such courts to prosecute critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on Lebanese authorities to drop charges against Dr. Muhammad Mugraby, a lawyer and human rights activist whom prosecutors have charged with “slandering the military establishment and its officers.” The charge carries a prison term of up to three years.

Mugraby was charged after he delivered a speech on November 4, 2003, to a European Parliament delegation in Brussels, where he criticized the Lebanese government’s practice of using military courts to prosecute civilians for dissent. He also told the delegation that the military judges lacked adequate legal training, and he condemned the use of torture to coerce confessions from suspects appearing before the military tribunals.

“The prosecution of Dr. Mugraby casts doubt on Lebanon’s commitment to human rights reform,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “No one should face jail for peacefully criticizing the government or the military.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that Mugraby’s trial before the same military court system that he is charged with having criticized will not conform to international fair trial standards. The Human Rights Committee – the body authorized to interpret and monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lebanon is a state party – has stated that the trial of civilians by military courts should be very exceptional and occur only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

Lebanon’s military courts do not meet such conditions. In 1997 the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted, in its Concluding Observations on Lebanon, its concern regarding “the procedures followed by these military courts, as well as the lack of supervision of the military courts’ procedures and verdicts by the ordinary courts.”

Moreover, Mugraby’s prosecution violates his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and his right “to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels,” as expressed in Article 1 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

This is not the first time that the Lebanese authorities have prosecuted and harassed Mugraby. In August 2003, officials arrested Mugraby and detained him for three weeks on apparently politically motivated charges of “impersonating a lawyer.” That arrest followed repeated attempts by the Beirut Bar Association to prevent Mugraby from practicing as a lawyer. This harassment took place while Mugraby was campaigning for investigations into judicial corruption and for an inquiry into the “disappearances” of two Lebanese who had been transferred to Syrian custody in 1997.

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