They’re trying to set an example, so they say, ‘We can arrest you and keep you in prison. If you raise your voice, we’ll shut you down,’” said one of 14 protesters going to trial in a military court on January 30. The protesters were arrested at a demonstration in October 2015 over Lebanon’s inability to solve its garbage collection crisis. They face up to three years in prison if convicted.
In Lebanon, civilians are routinely tried by military courts, where their due process rights are not respected, and in violation of international law. It’s not just those accused of serious crimes like terrorism or espionage—any altercation with a member of the army or security services, such as a car accident, can land you in military court.
In a new report by Human Rights Watch, people who have stood trial at a military court describe a pattern of serious human rights abuses and due process concerns including ill-treatment and torture, incommunicado detention, the use of confessions extracted under torture, verdicts issued without an explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences, and a limited ability to appeal.
There is no public information about the number of civilians tried before the military courts each year. But according to the Union for Protection of Juveniles in Lebanon, a shocking 355 children were tried by the military courts in 2016. Civilians, and children in particular, should not be tried in military courts under any circumstances.
The very structure of these courts undermines the right to be tried before a competent, independent, and impartial court and the right to a public hearing. The military court system is a separate judicial system under the Defense Ministry. Many of the judges are military officers who aren’t required to have a legal background and who issue decisions without a written opinion. Although most hearings are technically public, access to the court is highly restricted because it’s inside a military zone. Access for human rights organizations or journalists is only allowed with prior permission from the court, largely precluding trial monitoring.
People detained by the military and facing trial before military courts appear to be at a greater risk of torture. Former detainees, including those detained as children, reported beatings, psychological torture, electric shocks, being hung by the wrists tied behind their back, and being ordered to sign statements while blindfolded. One mother said: “I screamed from under the ground when I saw him…. I couldn’t believe this was my son. You can’t describe it. His face was all bloodied, swollen, and blue.”
Defendants, lawyers, and Lebanese human rights organizations have also expressed concern that officials within the Defense Ministry or Lebanese Army are using the overbroad jurisdiction of the military courts as a tool to intimidate or retaliate against political speech or activism. In recent years, the military prosecutor has brought charges against outspoken human rights lawyers, journalists, and activists. And last August, a military court found a woman guilty of “offending the military institution” in retaliation for telling a journalist that she had been raped and tortured in military custody.
The case against the protesters is just the latest if its kind. But none of these people should be facing trial in military courts in the first place. There is simply no reason to try civilians before military courts while Lebanon’s civilian courts are functioning.
Even those suspected of serious crimes such as terrorism do not belong in military courts. Sending civilians to a military court based only on the nature of charges condemns them to a system where their rights are compromised and justice is undermined. They should be tried in civilian courts where they have a fair chance to present their case, as required by international law.
Lebanon should remove civilians and especially children from the military courts’ jurisdiction, and ensure that judges throw out all confessions and evidence obtained under torture. The least that authorities can do is open these courts up to public scrutiny.
If authorities are comfortable with what is happening behind closed doors, then they should have nothing to hide. But if, as we have found, military courts violate civilians’ right to a fair trial, then the public deserves to know what is happening. Because at the end of the day, anyone in Lebanon can end up in military court.