(Beirut) – Lebanese military authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a woman arrested after she alleged being raped in military custody in 2013. The Lebanese army referred the case of Layal al-Kayaje, who was arrested on September 21, 2015, to the military prosecutor to investigate her for allegedly harming the military’s reputation by making false accusations.

Both the criminal prosecution of a civilian before a military court and a prosecution for allegedly defaming the army or other state institutions contravene Lebanon’s obligations under international law. The Lebanese judiciary should open an independent and impartial investigation into al-Kayaje’s allegations of rape by members of the military and hold anyone involved criminally responsible.

Layal al-Kayaje.© Private 2015

“Layal al-Kayaje has been jailed for almost a month for saying that she was tortured and raped in detention,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “By going after those who allege abuse as opposed to investigating the claims, Lebanon’s judiciary is entrenching impunity and undermining confidence in its independence.”

Military Intelligence arrested al-Kayaje after a local media outlet, NOW News, published an article in which a woman under the pseudonym “Amr” alleged that she was tortured in custody at the Defense Ministry in 2013 and was later raped by army personnel at the military detention center in Rehaniyyeh. The Lebanese army issued a statement the next day identifying “Amr” as al-Kayaje and claiming that she had confessed to lying about being raped to gain “sympathy and a job opportunity.” The army stated that it referred her case to the “relevant judicial instances.” A military investigative judge, Riad Abou Ghaida, is investigating her for iftira’ (fabricating false accusations), which is a crime under the Lebanese penal code. After her arrest on September 21, 2015, al-Kayaje was taken to the Defense Ministry. On September 23, she was transferred to the Barbar al-Khazen women’s prison in Beirut, where she is still being held.  

Human Rights Watch interviewed al-Kayaje in detention on October 9. She said that following her arrest in September, military interrogators at the Defense Ministry pressured her to withdraw the rape allegations reported by local media:

Several military men at the Ministry of Defense told me that rape allegations would ruin the lives of the two men, who have families and children. They said they want to help me by making this all go away. I was so traumatized and scared by what happened in 2013 that I just wanted this to be over, so I agreed. Instead, the army published a public statement saying I admitted to making false allegations to get fame and job opportunities. I was so shocked and upset. I decided that I had to speak up, if not for myself, but for the protection of other women from the men who raped me.

Al-Kayaje told Human Rights Watch that her allegations of rape in military detention at Rehaniyyeh was not a criticism of the army but of two individuals who did wrong. “I’m not against the army,” she said. “On the contrary, I’m just against what those two men did to me. Since the rape, I can’t sleep and feel on edge around men.”

Military Investigative Judge Abu Ghaida denied a request for al-Kayaje’s release on bail on October 13, al-Kayaje’s family told Human Rights Watch. They said that her lawyer subsequently filed another request for release but has yet to receive a response.

The journalist who wrote the NOW News article, Myra Abdullah, told Human Rights Watch that Abu Ghaida interrogated her in a humiliating way during an investigative session on October 15:

Abu Ghaida accused Layal and me of fabricating the rape story together to speak out against the army. I adamantly denied this. I am a journalist who is being investigated by the military court for publishing a story about abuse. How humiliating is that?

Under international law, governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts are functioning. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated in its general comment on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.”

Prosecuting people for allegedly defaming the army or other state institutions is incompatible with Lebanon’s obligations under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2011, the Human Rights Committee issued guidance that emphasized the high value international law places upon freedom of expression in “public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions,” adding specifically that governments “should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”

Al-Kayaje told Human Rights Watch that in 2013, after being released from detention, she called a doctor to have a medical exam. However, he refused to be involved due to the alleged involvement of the military. As a result, she had kept silent about the case until recently. The Convention against Torture, to which Lebanon is a party, requires governments to investigate all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, in a diligent, timely, and effective manner to bring those responsible to justice. Lebanon’s judiciary should promptly and impartially undertake an investigation of al-Kayaje’s allegations.

Survivors of sexual assault should have access to emergency medical services, legal assistance, and social support to address injuries caused by the assault; prevent pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections; and to collect evidence to support prosecution of perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said. 

In its national submission to the UN Human Rights Council on September 25, the Lebanese government stated that “vigorous steps” were “being taken to prevent torture by prosecuting perpetrators of torture and either sentencing them to imprisonment or subjecting them to severe disciplinary measures, such as dismissal from office.” However, Lebanon has failed in the past to properly investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for torture. While arrests of low-ranking security officials sometimes follow public abuse scandals, prosecutions made known to the public are rare. For example, in 2013, Human Rights Watch documented allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and a death in custody by the Lebanese army following the 2013 clashes in Saida. The outcome of any investigations into these allegations remains unknown.

Lebanon’s human rights record will come under review at the Human Rights Council on November 2, 2015, as part of the Universal Period Review mechanism set in place since 2005.

“Lebanese authorities should take advantage of the upcoming UN review to show that they are serious about combatting human rights violations,” Houry said. “One concrete way of doing that is to immediately release al-Kayaje and properly investigate her rape allegations.”