“It was the first time that I learned I could be treated this way,” said Tamara. “We were in a protest, what did we do? I had no idea that I could end up in front of a military court.” Tamara is one of 14 protesters arrested at a demonstration in 2015 over Lebanon’s inability to solve a waste management crisis, and who are on trial before a military court facing three years in prison.
The military court system in Lebanon is an exceptional judicial system that falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. It has broad jurisdiction over civilians, including in cases involving espionage, treason, draft evasion, unlawful contact with the enemy (Israel), or weapons possession; crimes that harm the interest of the military or the internal security forces, or the general security; as well as any conflict between civilians and military or security personnel or the civilian employees of the Ministry of Defense, army, security services, or military courts. The military courts' broad jurisdiction means that civilians can end up in military court for any interaction with security services or their employees. Children are also tried before the military courts when they are accused of these crimes. According to the Union for Protection of Juveniles in Lebanon, 355 children were tried before the military courts in 2016.
Defendants, lawyers, and Lebanese human rights organizations have expressed concern that officials within the Ministry of Defense or Lebanese Army are using the overbroad jurisdiction of the military courts as a tool for intimidation or retaliation against political speech or activism.
One of the protesters facing trial before a military court said, “I was charged because I’m one of the known figures. I’m a very nonviolent person. 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.’”
In recent years, the military prosecutor has brought charges against human rights lawyers and activists who have spoken out about torture by the Lebanese military. In another case, a military court found a woman guilty of “offending the military institution” for telling a journalist that she had been raped and tortured in military custody.
The composition of the military courts and the system for the appointment of judges undermine the courts’ competence, independence, and impartiality. Military judges are appointed by the Minister of Defense, and military judges on the courts are not required to have a law degree or legal training. Military personnel serving as judges remain subordinate to the Minister of Defense during their tenure. Furthermore, access to military court proceedings is restricted, which means that human rights organizations and journalists are not able to freely monitor the trials.
Individuals tried before the military courts and lawyers described a range of detainee rights and fair trial violations that they or their clients suffered before the military courts, including interrogations without the presence of a lawyer, ill-treatment and torture, incommunicado detention, the use of confessions extracted under torture, lengthy pretrial detention, decisions issued without an explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences, and a limited right to appeal.
Human Rights Watch documented ten cases in which civilians being detained by military personnel said that they were tortured at various points during their detentions, including interrogations. In eight of these cases, detainees tried before the military courts on terrorism or security related offenses were tortured, forced to confess, and had their coerced confessions used as evidence against them in court. Suspects detained by the military are often held incommunicado and interrogated without the presence of a lawyer. Lebanese human rights organizations and lawyers described a troubling pattern of seemingly routine torture of detainees in military custody. In some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the coerced confession was the only evidence of guilt presented against the accused. “I’m always worried about military investigations,” one lawyer said. “There will always be some form of violence.”
Lawyers who represent clients at the military courts and staff at Lebanese human rights organizations said that there is a higher incidence of torture in the military courts than civil courts because interrogations are conducted by military personnel, the types of allegations involved, such as terrorism, increase the likelihood of torture being used during interrogation, because of the absence of lawyers during military interrogations, and the often incommunicado nature of pre-charge military detention.
Survivors of torture described being subjected to beatings, psychological torture, electrocution, balanco [hanging a detainee by the wrists tied behind his back], and being ordered to sign statements while blindfolded. In one case, a woman told a journalist that she had been raped and tortured while in military custody. In another, a Syrian refugee who was apparently arrested on suspicion of being gay was subjected to an anal exam, a procedure that purports to provide “proof” of homosexual acts and a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that may in some cases amount to torture.
Human Rights Watch also documented two cases in which military personnel tortured children and extracted forced confessions from them. Both children were tried in military courts. 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. I barely had five minutes to see him, he begged me to get him out.”
Four Lebanese lawyers told Human Rights Watch that sentencing in the military courts is inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary, and that they have come to expect guilty sentences regardless of the evidence against their client.
According to Lebanese lawyers, there is only a limited right to appeal within the military court system, and the use of confessions extracted under torture in order to obtain a conviction is not considered grounds for appeal.
In a letter in response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Defense stated that, “The military judiciary in all of its statutes respects all national and international rules of law, especially what concerns respect for human rights.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have both held that military courts should not be used to try civilians. Civil society organizations in Lebanon have also long advocated for removing civilians from the jurisdiction of the military courts because of concerns about the lack of fair trials there.
Civilians should not be tried before military courts, where their rights are not protected, and children in particular should not be tried before military courts under any circumstances.
Lebanon should urgently reform the military court system by removing civilians and children from the military courts’ jurisdiction and ensure that judges deem inadmissible all confessions and evidence obtained under torture. It should expressly guarantee the right to a lawyer during interrogation and criminalize all forms of torture. The Ministry of Defense should refer all allegations of torture to the public prosecutor and implement a policy of zero tolerance for all forms of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. It should ensure all serving judges are fully independent and impartial, including ensuring that no judge is within the military chain of command.
To the Lebanese Parliament
- Amend article 24 of the Code of Military Justice of 1968 to remove civilians and all children from the jurisdiction of the military courts.
- Amend article 49 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to explicitly guarantee suspects the right to a lawyer during interrogation.
- Amend article 401 of the Penal Code to criminalize all forms of torture and ill-treatment. Adopt the Convention Against Torture’s definition of torture.
- Fund and staff the National Human Rights Institute with qualified, independent experts and ensure that it is able to visit all places of detention in the manner and frequency with which it decides and without fear of sanction or reprisal.
- Amend the Code of Military Justice of 1968 to expressly remove military court judges from the military chain of command.
To the Ministry of Defense and the Military Court
- Increase the transparency of proceedings within the military courts, including by providing basic information to the public on the number and status of cases involving civilians and by making proceedings open to the public.
- Ensure that detainees, upon admission to detention centers, are informed of and can exercise their right to speak with a lawyer, family member, or acquaintance; to meet with a lawyer; and to be referred to a judge promptly.
- Establish a centralized and accessible system for receiving and processing complaints of military personnel abuse of suspects or other malfeasance and ensure that complaints are trackable through unique complaint numbers.
- Refer all allegations of torture and ill-treatment received by the complaints mechanism, or otherwise known, to the public prosecutor and announce and publicly release the results of all investigations of torture and ill-treatment.
- Investigate and punish personnel who are found guilty of torture or ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, or failure to promptly refer a detainee to a judge.
- Ensure that judges deem inadmissible all confessions and other evidence obtained under torture.
- Mandate that independent doctors, who are not selected by officers at the detention facility in question, examine patients outside of the presence of army personnel, and record all indications of torture and other mistreatment. Include a copy of the physical examination report in suspects’ case files.
- Ensure that all members of the Lebanese Armed Forces are clearly identifiable through name and rank tags on their uniforms at all times.
- Provide safeguards to protect female detainees from all forms of abuse, including gender-specific abuse, and ensure that female officers are present at all times during arrest, transfer, and interrogation of female detainees.
- Overturn all convictions of defendants that were based upon confessions extracted under duress.
- Ensure that social workers are able to access children in military detention and are present during interrogations of children as required by article 34 of Lebanon’s Juvenile Law.
To the Ministry of Justice
- Direct the office of the public prosecutor to investigate all torture and ill-treatment allegations against officials, regardless of rank or superior officer approval, and whether or not the victim or family has formally filed a complaint.
To the National Human Rights Institute and Preventative Mechanism
- Conduct periodic monitoring of all places of detention including those under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and submit any evidence of torture or ill-treatment to the public prosecutor.
- Monitor Military Court trials to guard against the use of coerced confessions and evidence extracted under torture to prosecute defendants.
To Donor Countries
- Encourage the Lebanese government to implement the recommendations of this report.
- Audit funding and technical assistance provided to the Ministry of Defense to ensure that funding is not supporting policies, programs, or practices that violate international law, including torture and ill-treatment.
- Fund the National Human Rights Institute and Preventative Mechanism.
- Ensure that aid to the Ministry of Defense supports the development of internal oversight and accountability mechanisms within the Lebanese Armed Forces, including an independent body to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
- Refrain from funding Lebanese Armed Forces units that are credibly found to abuse human rights and make resumption of funding to such units subject to enactment of reforms that guarantee the cessation of such abuses and accountability for past violations.
To the Lebanese Authorities
- Accept the request of the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit Lebanon.
Research for this report was conducted between August 2014 and December 2016. Human Rights Watch conducted 41 interviews with individuals who appeared before the military courts, their family members, lawyers, judges, activists, and representatives from civil society organizations and the Lebanese government. Where possible, we corroborated witness accounts with other accounts and sources, including lawyers and family members.
Interviews and field investigations took place in Beirut, Tripoli, and the Bekaa Valley. Human Rights Watch was careful to conduct all interviews in safe and private places. Interviews were conducted in English and Arabic, sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter. Four of the interviews were conducted by telephone. The names of all interviewees in this report have been replaced with pseudonyms in the interest of individuals’ safety, due to fears of retaliation for criticizing the military or because they have active cases before the military courts. All instances where pseudonyms have been used are referenced in the footnotes. Pseudonyms may not match the religious affiliation of the interviewee. In some cases, we have withheld additional identifying information to protect individuals’ safety and privacy.
Human Rights Watch informed all interviewees of the nature and purpose of our research, and our intentions to publish a report with the information gathered. We informed each potential interviewee that they were under no obligation to speak with us, that Human Rights Watch does not provide direct humanitarian services, and that they could stop speaking with us or decline to answer any question with no adverse consequences. We obtained oral consent for each interview and took care to avoid re-traumatizing interviewees. Interviewees did not receive material compensation for speaking with Human Rights Watch.
We did not undertake surveys or a statistical study, but instead base our findings on extensive interviews supplemented by our analysis of a wide range of published and unpublished materials. As part of our research, Human Rights Watch met with several organizations in Lebanon, including Alef, Alkarama, and Legal Agenda. Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm, a second Lebanese law firm, and a Lebanese lawyer reviewed this report. We also sent letters to the Lebanese Ministry of Defense, Armed Forces, Military Police, Military Intelligence, and military court, submitted a request to attend the trial of the protestors on January 30, 2017 at the Military Tribunal, and met with the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Ministry of Defense responded to Human Rights Watch on January 5, 2017, and we have included a translation of their response in Annex III of this report. Human Rights Watch has not received a response to our request to attend the military court trial on January 30, 2017.
Human Rights Watch has withheld identification of organizations our researchers met with that requested anonymity in order not to jeopardize their ongoing operations.
Structure and Jurisdiction of the Military Courts
The military court system is an exceptional judicial system that falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. It is divided into three parts including the Military Cassation Court, the Permanent Military Court (commonly referred to as the Military Tribunal), and the single military judges. The military court system’s proceedings are governed by the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Code of Military Justice of 1968.
The military courts, as stipulated in the Lebanese Code of Military Justice of 1968, have jurisdiction over offences against national security, crimes committed by or against military personnel, crimes within military facilities, and crimes against foreign military personnel.
Article 24 of the Code of Military Justice of 1968 states that the military courts have jurisdiction over all crimes that harm the interest of the military or the internal security forces, or the general security. The courts have jurisdiction over civilians in cases involving espionage, treason, draft evasion, weapons possession, unlawful contact with the enemy (Israel), as well as any conflict between civilians and military or security personnel or the civilian employees of the Ministry of Defense, army, security services, or military courts. Children can also be tried before the courts.
In serious crime cases, such as felonies, the Military Tribunal is headed by a military officer assisted by four other judges, three of whom are military officers of a lower rank. In less serious cases, such as misdemeanors, the head of the tribunal is assisted by two other judges, one a judicial judge and the other a military officer of a lower rank. The Minister of Defense appoints the military judges, who are not required to have a law degree or legal training. However, according to the Ministry of Defense, “Most officers are law degree holders, and some hold post-graduate degrees in law.” Military personnel serving as judges remain subordinate to the Minister of Defense.
Military court proceedings are nominally public unless a presiding judge issues a decree to hold a trial in secret. In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Defense acknowledged defendants’ right to “a fair, open and transparent trial,” and wrote that, “A trial before the military court is open, and no session is held without the attendance of representatives of the media (newspapers and television), with some sessions covered directly on television, with the exception of some cases related to the public morals.” However access to the court is restricted because the court is located within a military area, meaning that human rights organizations in Lebanon are not able to enter and freely monitor military trials without the prior approval of the presiding judge. Human Rights Watch wrote to the military court on December 14, 2016 requesting permission to attend a court session on January 30, 2017, but did not receive a response.
There have been a number of draft laws introduced to change the structure of the military court system, most recently by the Minster of Justice in 2015. However, Lebanese human rights lawyers have questioned the bill’s definition of terrorism, its creation of a parallel specialized court system, and the fact that it would not remove civilians from the jurisdiction of the military court.
The Case of the Protestors
One prominent case before the Military Tribunal concerns 14 protesters who were arrested while demonstrating against the government’s inability to resolve a waste management crisis in 2015 and are now facing charges before the Military Tribunal. On July 17, 2015, Lebanese authorities closed the Naameh landfill that had accepted most of Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s solid waste since 1998, but without first devising an alternate solution. As waste piled up on sidewalks, demonstrators took to the streets, protesting government paralysis over the accumulation of waste and inability to reach a solution.
Police in Lebanon used excessive force to disperse protests, including on August 19, 22, and 23, 2015, failing to uphold human rights standards. Witnesses said that police fired water hoses without warning and kicked protesters, beat them with batons, and used rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, water cannons, and the butts of rifles. Security forces also fired live ammunition, reportedly in the air, to disperse protesters.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on October 8, 2015, Lebanese security forces again used force to disperse protests, after they attempted to dismantle a security barrier, including by using water cannons and beating protesters. Some protesters were detained by Internal Security Forces, the police, for up to eleven days, and fourteen of them face trial before the Military Tribunal.
II. The Trial of Civilians Before the Military Courts
The military courts in Lebanon have jurisdiction over civilians in cases involving espionage, treason, draft evasion, unlawful contact with the enemy (Israel), or weapons possession; crimes that harm the interest of the military or the internal security forces, or the general security; as well as any conflict between civilians and military or security personnel or the civilian employees of the Ministry of Defense, army, security services, or military courts. The courts’ broad jurisdiction over any case between civilians and military personnel means that civilians can end up in military court for any interaction with security services. The composition of the military courts, the lack of required legal background or training for military judges and their direct appointment by the Minister of Defense and subordination to the Minister further undermine the competence, independence, and impartiality of the courts.
Overbroad Jurisdiction: Intimidation and Retaliation against Civilians
According to defendants, lawyers, and Lebanese human rights organizations, the military courts have used this broad jurisdiction to intimidate or retaliate against individuals for political reasons and to stamp out dissent, including against those who protested the Lebanese government’s mismanagement of waste in 2015. Because the courts fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense, “the political interference at this court is really heavy,” one lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “They are so close to the politicians they can’t be impartial.”
The military courts have a history of trying activists, journalists, and human rights lawyers. Alef, a local human rights organization, found in one report that “since its creation … the Military Court has been used as a political tool on many instances for suppressing the public opinion.” “Military courts are being used as a tool of intimidation,” a researcher at a local human rights organization said.
Fourteen protestors detained by the Internal Security Forces after demonstrating against Lebanon’s inability to solve a waste management crisis in 2015, are now facing trial at the Military Tribunal on charges of rioting, the use of force against security personnel during the exercise of their duties, and the destruction of property. They are in the military court system because the charges involve altercations between civilians and security forces. If found guilty, they face up to three years in prison. Another group of at least 24 protestors are also awaiting charges before the military courts.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three of the protestors, who expressed shock that they could be tried by a military court after attending a protest. “They treat you like they’re talking to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Fadia, referring to the leader of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
The three protestors and two Lebanese lawyers who spoke to Human Rights Watch also claimed that the overbroad jurisdiction of the military courts over civilians was being used to retaliate against the protesters and stifle dissent. One protester, Jawad, said, “I was charged because I’m one of the known figures. I’m a very nonviolent person. 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.’” Another protestor, Tamara, described how the treatment she received before the military court was intentionally intimidating. She said:
It was the first time that I learned I could be treated this way. We were in a protest, what did we do? I had no idea that I could end up in front of a military court.… The treatment in military court is very ugly. I’m not military, I’m not wearing a uniform, you can’t treat me like an enlisted soldier.… I have no problem, send me to a civilian court. But I shouldn’t be in the military courts, it’s not the right place for us. They’re trying to scare us. The days we go down to the tribunal, I worry about what might happen.
Defendants appearing in military court are effectively detained during the day of their appearance. They are required to appear at the court in the early morning, and are not allowed to leave the building until their session is complete and authorities have searched records and cleared them of any open warrants, a process that can take hours. “You have to wait for the background check before being released, I wasted four hours,” said Jawad, one of the protesters. “We aren’t respected as citizens. I can’t work on days when I need to go to court, I’m losing time.”
In another case, Layal al-Kayaje, said that she was tortured while in custody at the Ministry of Defense and then later raped by members of Military Intelligence at their detention center in Rehaniyyeh in 2013. She said that she had been arrested because she had posted messages on Facebook supporting the cleric Ahmad al-Assir, whose followers allegedly fired on an army checkpoint in 2013, prompting two days of clashes in which 18 soldiers and 28 of Assir’s supporters died.
After speaking to a journalist about her detention, al-Kayaje was detained by Military Intelligence in Saida on September 21, 2015. Human Rights Watch interviewed her in detention on October 9. She said that following her arrest in September, military interrogators at the Ministry of Defense pressured her to withdraw the rape allegations reported by local media. The military prosecutor brought charges against al-Kayaje and on August 22, 2016 a military court found her guilty of “offending the military institution” and sentenced her to time served.
In July 2011, Military Intelligence interrogated Saadeddine Shatila, of the international human rights organization Alkarama, for more than seven hours, focusing on his work documenting human rights violations in Lebanon, and cases of torture in particular. A military prosecutor, later interrogated Shatila, and referred his case to a military investigative judge, accusing him of publishing “information harmful to the reputation of the Lebanese Military.” Six months later, in February 2012, the investigative judge closed the investigation without bringing charges against Shatila. Alkarama called the incident a clear “attempt to intimidate a human rights defender.”
In 2006, Dr. Muhammad Mugraby, a lawyer and human rights activist stood trial in a military court on charges of “slandering the military establishment and its officers,” after he gave a speech to a European Parliament delegation in Brussels criticizing the Lebanese government’s practice of using the military courts to prosecute civilians for dissent. Dr. Mugraby 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 courts.
Court Structure: Not a Competent, Independent, Impartial Court
The structure of the military courts undermines the right to a fair trial, including the right to be tried before a competent, independent, and impartial court and the right to a public hearing. The Minister of Defense, in consultation with the military and security services, appoints the military judges at the beginning of each year. A serving military officer presides over the Military Tribunal. In serious crime cases, such as felonies, the officer is joined by four other members only one of whom is a judicial judge, while the other three are officers of a lower rank than the president of the tribunal, and are not required to have legal training. In minor crime cases, such as misdemeanors, the officer presiding over the tribunal is joined by a lower ranked military officer, who need not have a legal background, and a judicial judge.
The dominance of military judges without required legal training, the subordinate rank of some of the judges, and the fact that military judges remain answerable to the Minister of Defense undermines the competence, independence, and impartiality of the courts. “The fact that you have a person in the military hierarchy creates an appearance of impartiality. How do we know that they aren’t following orders?” asked one Lebanese lawyer. “The issue is that the military associate, lower ranked, will not disagree with the chief judge” said another lawyer who represents clients in military court.
The UN Human Rights Committee has found that “the right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal is an absolute right that may suffer no exception.”
The procedure used to appoint judges, the absence of required legal training for judges and the absence of oversight, alongside the lack of public court sessions, undermine basic fair trial and due process rights. In military courts, “the possibility of giving a quality defense is nonexistent,” said a second Lebanese lawyer.
A report by the Lebanese human rights organization Alef, states that, “with the creation of the modern Military Tribunal in 1968, the denial of the right to a fair trial, arbitrary arrests and detentions, including incommunicado detention were facilitated in the judicial apparatus.”
Civil society organizations in Lebanon have long advocated for removing civilians from the jurisdiction of the military courts because of fair trial concerns. In 2012 a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) urged Lebanese authorities to stop referring civilians to the military courts, arguing that they “failed to comply with international standards relating to fair trial,” and created “a favorable atmosphere for the violation of the rights of the defendants as well as an environment of lawlessness, of impunity and blatant contempt for the rule of law.” The statement went on to say, “The Military Court in Lebanon has, since its establishment, proved to be a judicial system without oversight mechanisms, accountability or transparency.”
In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers wrote to Lebanon requesting an invitation to conduct a country visit, but has not received a response.
III. Torture and the Use of Coerced Confessions
Human Rights Watch and Lebanese civil society organizations have for years documented a pattern of torture by Lebanese military forces.
Lawyers who represent clients at the military courts and staff at Lebanese human rights organizations said that there is a higher incidence of torture in the military courts than in civil courts because interrogations are conducted by military personnel, the types of allegations involved, such as terrorism, increase the likelihood of torture being used during interrogation, because of the absence of lawyers during military interrogations, and the often incommunicado nature of pre-charge military detention.
Human Rights Watch documented ten cases in which civilians being detained by military personnel said that they were tortured at various points during their detentions, including interrogations, and none of them had access to a lawyer or their families during interrogations.
A Lebanese human rights organization that documents the use of torture found that most cases of torture they see occur during the interrogation phase. “In military courts, torture is seen as part of the punishment,” a researcher for that organization said.
In one case Human Rights Watch documented, Shadi, a Syrian refugee, said that during a January 2016 interrogation at his house in Jounieh, Military Intelligence officers punched him and his roommates in the face and hit them with batons. He said officers arrested him in early February, apparently on suspicion that he was gay, and transferred him to the Sarba Military Intelligence branch in Jounieh. There, he said, officers blindfolded him, stripped him naked, beat him with sticks, and punched him in the face. Shadi said that the next morning they blindfolded him again, forced him to sign a paper he could not read, and hit him when he asked what he was signing. He said officers then transferred him to the Ministry of Defense in Yarzeh. Upon arrival Shadi said they took him underground, where an interrogator elbowed him in the stomach, hit him on his neck, and kicked him in the groin.
Shadi said that officers then transported him to the Rihanieh military police prison, where they took him into a room and told him to undress. While there, Shadi said that he asked to call a friend or a lawyer, but was told he was not allowed to do so. He said officers handcuffed him while naked and told him to bend over facing the wall. The officer told him, “I will insert this into your anus to determine how many times you’ve had sex.” The officer inserted a rod into his anus, causing him to scream out in pain and beg for the officer to stop.
Forced anal examinations lack evidentiary value and are a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that may in some cases amount to torture.
In another case, one woman, Layal al-Kayaje, said that she was tortured while in custody at the Ministry of Defense and then later raped by members of Military Intelligence at their detention center in Rehaniyyeh in 2013.
Detainees, their relatives, and their lawyers said that lawyers and family often had no idea where detainees were being held.
“I’m always worried about military investigations,” one lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “There will always be some form of violence.” “Whenever it’s a case in the military line, they beat you before they ask your name,” another lawyer said.
Human Rights Watch has documented eight other cases in which civilian detainees tried before the military courts on terrorism or security related offenses said that security officials tortured them, forced them to confess, and used their coerced confessions as evidence against them. Other civil society organizations have also documented cases before the military courts in which confessions extracted under torture were used against the accused as evidence of guilt. “The court relies on the confession, they are never convinced that he confessed under duress or torture,” said one lawyer. In some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, defendants and their lawyers said that the coerced confession was the only evidence of guilt prosecutors presented against the accused. In only one case did a court throw out a coerced confession, but even in that case, the authorities took no apparent steps to investigate and penalize the officers who tortured the detainee.
The use of confessions extracted through torture, an issue before other courts in Lebanon as well, is a violation of both Lebanese and international law and undermines the right to a fair trial.
One lawyer said that although prosecutors also use confessions extracted under torture in civilian courts, lawyers there are more likely to succeed in getting those confessions thrown out.
Forcing someone to confess violates both international law and article 47 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that “if [suspects] refuse to speak and remain silent, this must be mentioned in the official report. They must not be forced to speak or to be interrogated, under penalty of invalidity of their statements.” While article 401 of the Lebanese Penal Code provides criminal penalties for the use of violence to extract confessions, the Lebanese judiciary rarely, if ever, prosecutes state agents alleged to have committed torture or other ill-treatment. On October 19, 2016, Lebanon’s parliament passed a law to establish a National Human Rights Institute, which will include a committee to investigate and monitor the use of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention. But Lebanon has still not passed legislation to criminalize all forms of torture as required by the Convention against Torture.
Ruwayd, a Lebanese man in his mid-20s from northern Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch that officials from the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested him in Beirut in the spring of 2014 and transferred him to their headquarters in Achrafieh where they told him that he was suspected of being involved in clashes in Tripoli. He said interrogators tied his wrists behind his back and then hoisted him up into the air. “I couldn’t breathe. The wind was knocked out of me and I passed out,” Ruwayd told Human Rights Watch. The next day he said officials transferred him to the Ministry of Defense in Yarze, and there, he told officers he was tortured by the ISF but that they said, “If you don’t talk, we will make you talk. We have balanco [hanging the victim by the wrists tied behind the back], farrouj [suspending the victim by the feet with hands tied together to an iron bar passed under the knees], electricity—whatever you want, we will do it. Speak or we will send you to torture!” Ruwayd said he confessed to everything he was accused of because he was afraid of being tortured further. Ruwayd was eventually released from prison in early 2015.
Najib, another Lebanese man, also told Human Rights Watch that officers beat him and forced him to sign a confession during his interrogation at the Ministry of Defense in Yarze, after the army arrested him at his home in fall 2014. During the interrogation Najib said officers slapped him, punched him in the face, and threw him against the wall. He said officers made him stand in front of the wall in the interrogation room for five hours until he passed out and collapsed on the floor. He said that the beatings left him with a swollen neck, back, and legs, and that his whole body was black and blue. The next day they forced him to sign a piece of paper without telling him what was written on it. He said that two days later he was brought before the investigative judge at the military court and was charged with selling weapons. He said the only evidence presented against him was his coerced confession. He was released several days later pending trial.
In some cases, military courts admitted coerced confessions as evidence even when signs of torture were apparent on the detainee’s body or when detainees said the confession was coerced.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a Lebanese man in his mid-20s from Jabal Mohsen, whose brother Basil was arrested in the spring of 2015 after reporting to the Marabatoun military intelligence station in Tripoli to finalize some routine paperwork as a former state employee. Military intelligence officials accused him of participating in clashes in neighboring Bab al-Tabbaneh and transferred him to Ibay Military Intelligence branch and then the Ministry of Defense in Yarze. He said that when he visited Basil in detention, Basil told him that Military Intelligence officials tortured him while in the custody of the Ministry of Defense in Yarze and forced him to confess. “Basil told the judge that he confessed under torture. The judge didn’t seem to care,” he said. “Basil’s face was completely swollen and blood still occasionally trickled out of his nose while he spoke. He said that he couldn’t bare the torture so he just confessed to whatever they wanted.” Human Rights Watch spoke with Basil’s lawyer who confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the coerced confession was entered into evidence against him.
In another case, Alan, a Syrian refugee in his mid-30s, told Human Rights Watch that Military Intelligence arrested him in fall 2015, while his wife was giving birth in the hospital. They took him to Military Intelligence headquarters. He told Human Rights Watch:
There is a psychological toll when you get arrested, with people talking about others who were tortured.… They told me that the charge was terrorism, and my heart stopped. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and blindfolded me, and then the beatings began. They were telling me to speak, I told them I didn’t have time to speak. They made me stand against the wall and beat me until I fell to the ground. They beat me for an hour and a half. If I answer, he beats me. If I don’t answer the question, he beats me. They didn’t let us breathe.
Alan said that Military Intelligence then transferred him to the Ministry of Defense in Yarze, where he said officers further tortured him.
I barely arrived before they started beating me.… They call you by a number so that you don’t know who else is there. When they call your number, you start to shake with fear. I was held by ISIS in Raqqa for 18 days. The treatment was largely the same, except here I knew I wouldn’t be killed. My ear was injured from the beating, so they brought a doctor.”
Alan’s lawyer said, “A military doctor inspects the detainees, but in the report, they don’t mention the injuries. In his report, it says he was inspected by a military doctor who found him in good health.” Alan said officers interrogated and tortured him for four days at the Ministry of Defense and forced him to sign a confession while blindfolded. The authorities then transferred him to the military court.
According his lawyer, Alan was charged with membership in a terrorist organization and financing a terrorist organization on the basis of the confession he signed while blindfolded. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to one year in prison.
In one case, a former detainee told Human Rights Watch that the court ordered him released after a military court judge observed that his confession was coerced, but said that as far as he knew no further investigation was undertaken against the officers who tortured him.
Hafiz, a Lebanese man from the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood in Tripoli, said that Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese army stopped him at a checkpoint in Akkar in the spring of 2014 and informed him that he was wanted for shooting at the army. They transferred him to the Military Intelligence base in Ibay and the next day he was transferred to the Ministry of Defense in Yarze where officers interrogated and tortured him using the balanco method. He said:
I immediately blacked out. The last thing I remember I was laying on the ground in total pain and yelling that I confess, I shot at the army. I was in so much pain. I wanted to do anything to make it stop. More than a year later I am still undergoing regular physical therapy treatments for the injuries sustained in my shoulder.
Hafiz said that when he appeared before an investigative judge he took his shirt off and showed her the torture marks on his body. “The judge threw out my case. The only thing they had against me was the forced confession and she ruled that that was void because it was obviously taken under force. The marks on my body don’t lie,” he said.
Torture and Trial of Children Before the Military Courts
Human Rights Watch has also documented the use of torture to extract confessions from children on trial before the military courts. According to the Union for Protection of Juveniles in Lebanon, 355 children were tried before the military courts in 2016.
Haitham, a Syrian refugee boy, told Human Rights Watch that after being stopped at an army checkpoint in Tripoli in 2014 at the age of 15, officers arrested him and held him for several days at Military Intelligence in Ibay before transferring him to the Ministry of Defense in Yarze. While in the custody of Military Intelligence, he said that officers beat him with their hands and legs and made him “confess to things I did not do.” At the Ministry of Defense, he said officers forced him to sign a confession while blindfolded, and that they then used this confession as evidence against him before a military court where he was tried for terrorism offenses. Haitham told Human Rights Watch that he had marks of torture on his body and the judge saw them but did not say anything about them. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Haitham a mark was still visible on his body where he said officers beat him with a rifle butt.
Military Intelligence officers arrested Khaled, then 16, in his home in north Lebanon in 2014, and transferred him to Military Intelligence headquarters. His lawyer said that he was interrogated there for three days, and that interrogators blindfolded him and “punched him on his face, hit him with a rod on his back, insulted him, and threatened him.” He said they transferred Khaled to the Ministry of Defense on the fourth day of his detention. There, the lawyer said interrogators hung him from a rope tied to his wrists behind his back, and beat him. He said they also attached wires to his genitals, electrocuted him until he fainted, and threw water on his face to wake him up—all while asking him to identify terrorism suspects, and to confess to placing a bomb, throwing grenades at army posts, and membership in a terrorist organization. “He didn’t know where the beating was coming from,” the lawyer said. “He admitted to everything, to crucifying Christ, to killing the prime minister.”
According to his lawyer, Khaled spent four days at the Ministry of Defense in Yarze where officers threw water and shined a bright light on him to keep him from sleeping. “He could hear the sounds of people being tortured,” the lawyer said. He said officers forced Khaled to sign a statement while blindfolded after every session of torture, one to two times each day.
Khaled’s lawyer said officers transferred him to the military court, where he appeared before the investigative judge alongside a juvenile representative, but without a lawyer. A prosecutor charged him with membership in a terrorist organization and conducting terrorist activities, which Khaled’s lawyer said carries a sentence of 5-15 years in prison. “I told the judge that he confessed under pressure,” the lawyer said. “The military court doesn’t listen; they don’t take it into consideration.” The military court found Khaled guilty and transferred his file to the juvenile court, because they did not have the authority to sentence a child. “Why would you keep the file if you don’t have authority to sentence minors? They should have referred the case to the juvenile court” immediately, rather than trying the boy, said his lawyer. Khaled is now awaiting trial for terrorism charges at the juvenile court, but has been released on bail after spending nearly a year detained alongside adults in Roumieh prison.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has a project to support children in detention and provide them with psychological services, but the project does not extend to those detained by the military. “For the cases where they are in military detention, [the ministry] can’t reach them,” a representative of the ministry said. He said that under Lebanese law, a social worker should be present within six hours of a child’s detention and during interrogation, “but in many cases, the military court doesn’t communicate that a child is detained.”
The Union for Protection of Childhood in Lebanon provides social support to children on trial in Lebanese courts, under a contract with the Ministry of Justice. But one employee told Human Rights Watch that social workers are usually not present during military interrogations, because the military does not routinely alert them that a child has been detained.
IV. Due Process Rights
Access to Lawyers and Relatives in Pre-Charge Detention
The Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure guarantees detained suspects due process rights, including the right to contact a person of their choosing (such as a family member or an employer) and to meet with a lawyer. Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates that arresting officers must inform all detained suspects of these rights promptly upon arrest. However, almost all of the individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they were not informed of the rights guaranteed in the Code of Criminal Procedure.
One lawyer who represents defendants before the military courts said that although Article 47 guarantees the right to call a lawyer, “they’re not applying this at all.” Alef, a Lebanese human rights organization, found in a 2013 report that in practice, lawyers are not able to attend preliminary interrogations under article 47. Another lawyer said detainees were routinely denied the right to call family members or a lawyer during interrogations conducted by Military Intelligence, which take place before a suspect has come before a judge or prosecutor. She said she may not even know that her client is detained, let alone that the client may already be undergoing interrogations.
Of the ten cases in which Human Rights Watch documented alleged torture during military interrogations, none of the individuals said they were able to contact a lawyer before or during interrogation. In many of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, detainees were not allowed to speak with their relatives or a lawyer before they appeared in front of an investigative judge. “They hide them off the planet until they get a confession, and then you find out where they are,” said one lawyer.
Khaled, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, “wasn’t allowed to call a lawyer, was not allowed to call a family member, and no one was allowed to ask about him” while he was interrogated by Military Intelligence and Ministry of Defense personnel and then detained at the military court, said his lawyer. His mother said the family did not know where he was for several months, until an acquaintance was released from detention and told the family where Khaled was. His father went to the military court, “he kept telling them my son is here, my son is here,” she said. “I screamed from under the ground when I saw him. My son is beautiful, he’s not ugly. I couldn’t believe this was my son. You can’t describe it. His face was all bloodied, swollen, and blue. I barely had five minutes to see him, he begged me to get him out.”
An arrest by state authorities, followed by a refusal to acknowledge an individual’s arrest or concealing their fate or whereabouts, constitutes an enforced disappearance under international law.
In another case, Zouher, a Lebanese man in his mid-20s, had just undergone surgery at Shaheen Hospital in Tal in northern Lebanon, in early 2015, when, according to his parents, Military Police and Military Intelligence arrested him. After the arrest, his father told Human Rights Watch that the authorities held Zouher incommunicado for more than a week and that the family only discovered his whereabouts through a former detainee who saw him in detention. Zouher was tried by the Military Tribunal, but court authorities did not permit his family to enter the courtroom. “Only those with connections are allowed in,” his mother told Human Rights Watch.
Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they often needed to use personal connections to locate clients in military detention. One lawyer explained that although access to clients in detention is a widespread problem in Lebanon, during military interrogations in particular lawyers often have no way to determine that a client is detained or where they are being held. Alan, who said Military Intelligence officers arrested him and subsequently transferred him to the Ministry of Defense, said his family had to hire a lawyer to try and locate him in detention.
“The family wasn’t aware of where he was,” Alan’s lawyer said. “They came to me to find him, and if I didn’t know anyone at a security agency, I wouldn’t be able to find him. I had to use my own connection to find him, it took several days.”
Lengthy Pretrial Detention
A lawyer who represents clients before the military courts in Beirut also told Human Rights Watch that bail was often not granted to defendants before the first court session, which in some cases could take a year. Lengthy pretrial detention violates due process rights guaranteed under international law which state that pretrial detention should be the exception, not the rule, and that anyone held in detention before trial is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or to be released. Alef, a Lebanese human rights organization, found in its 2013 report on arbitrary detention in Lebanon that, “Due to the nature of the procedures at military tribunals in almost all cases, there is a serious risk of detentions becoming arbitrary in nature.” Article 108 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure restricts pretrial detention for felonies to six months, renewable once, but this restriction does not apply to those charged with “homicide, felonies involving drugs and attacks against state security, felonies which represent a global danger and offences of terrorism,” as well as those with a prior criminal conviction. Human Rights Watch documented cases where detainees as young as 16 were held in pretrial detention for a year or longer.
Sentencing and the Right to Appeal
Sentences issued by the military courts are seemingly arbitrary. A judge in Tripoli told Human Rights Watch that sentences issued by the courts on the same charges varied widely, raising basic fairness and impartiality issues. “Based on the same charges literally some will get six months and others will get the death sentence,” said the judge.
Lawyers who represent clients in military court also told Human Rights Watch that they have come to expect inevitable guilty sentences at the court. “If my client gets sentenced to time served and a 100,000 [LL, US$66] fine, I consider this a success,” said one lawyer. “I’ve only ever gotten one non-guilty verdict,” she said, because someone else had been found guilty of the crime her client was charged with. “Not guilty sentences are very rare. Whenever they don’t find evidence they sentence them to time served,” another lawyer said.
Lebanon has the death penalty and civilians have been sentenced to death in military courts. However, there is an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in Lebanon, and the last known execution was carried out in 2004.
There is only a limited right to appeal within the military court system. Cases before a single military judge can be appealed to the Military Tribunal. However, there is no right to appeal decisions of the Military Tribunal, only the possibility of submitting an appeal, called a “cassation challenge,” to the Military Cassation Court. But in practice lawyers said they often do not pursue this option because of the limited grounds for a challenge and because challenges are rarely successful. Under the Code of Military Justice of 1968, individuals before the court can file a cassation challenge if the case falls outside the court’s jurisdiction, there is a failure to observe essential procedural requirements, or there is an error in the implementation of the law. “Most appeals are sent back, with a decision that there aren’t grounds for appeal,” said one lawyer. “Usually, you need to find a procedural error or inconsistency. Torture is not considered grounds for appeal.” The military courts do not have to present a rationale or written opinion explaining their decisions, making them more difficult to challenge.
According to the Draft Principles Governing the Administration of Justice Through Military Tribunals, military courts should be limited to ruling in first instance and “recourse procedures, particularly appeals, should be brought before the civil courts.”
V. Legal Standards
Under international law, governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function.
Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon ratified in 1972, guarantees everyone the right to timely trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process. It has found 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,” and that “trials of civilians by military or special courts should be exceptional, i.e. limited to cases where the State party can show that resorting to such trials is necessary and justified by objective and serious reasons, and where … regular civilian courts are unable to undertake the trials.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism has expressed concern that lower fair trial guarantees in military courts due to “prolonged periods of pre-charge and pretrial detention, with inadequate access to counsel, intrusion into the attorney-client confidentiality and strict limitations on the right to appeal and bail. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur is concerned that lower procedural and evidential standards in these courts often encourage systematic resort to extralegal practices such as torture to extract confessions of alleged terrorist suspects.”
In its 1997 concluding observations on Lebanon, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern “about the broad scope of the jurisdiction of military courts in Lebanon, especially its extension beyond disciplinary matters and its application to civilians. It is also concerned about 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.”
The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN body charged with interpreting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stressed that “the conduct of criminal proceedings against children within the military justice system should be avoided.” Lebanon ratified the convention in 1991.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that “military courts should not have jurisdiction to try civilians, whatever the charges they face. They can no[t] be considered as independent and impartial tribunals for civilians.” According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, “using military or emergency courts to try civilians in the name of national security, a state of emergency or counter-terrorism is a regrettably common practice that runs counter to all international and regional standards and established case law.” She held in a 2013 report that, “In no case should a military tribunal established within the territory of the State exercise jurisdiction over civilians accused of having committed a criminal offence in that same territory.”
The Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, presented before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2005, state that “the jurisdiction of military tribunals must be restricted solely to specifically military offenses committed by military personnel, to the exclusion of human rights violations, which shall come under the jurisdiction of the ordinary domestic courts or, where appropriate, in the case of serious crimes under international law, of an international or internationalized criminal court.”
The ICCPR and the Convention Against Torture prohibit the use of torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Convention Against Torture also requires State Parties to criminalize all acts of torture, attempts to commit torture, and complicity in torture; to make sure that these offences are punishable by appropriate penalties that take into account the grave nature of these crimes; to launch a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed; to ensure that any statement established to have been made as a result of torture is not invoked as evidence in any proceedings except against the person accused of torture; and to review interrogation rules, instructions, methods, and practices as well as arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected to any form of arrest or detention, with a view to preventing any cases of torture.
The ICCPR further guarantees the due process rights of detainees, including the right to be informed of the reasons for an arrest and promptly informed of any charges; to be brought promptly before a judge; to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and communicate with a lawyer of one’s choosing; to a trial within reasonable time or release; and to appeal a conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal. The Convention prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention and the routine use of pretrial detention.
The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers states in a 2013 report that judges “must appear to a reasonable observer to be impartial, and act in such a way as to maintain and enhance the confidence of the public, the legal profession and litigants in the impartiality of the judge and of the judiciary.” According to the Draft Principles Governing the Administration of Justice Through Military Tribunals, judges called on to sit in military courts “should be competent, having undergone the same legal training as that required of professional judges” and that “statutory independence of judges vis-à-vis the military hierarchy must be strictly protected, avoiding any direct or indirect subordination.”
This report was researched and written by Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Haley Bobseine, former Lebanon researcher, provided additional research and writing for this report.
This report was edited by Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, and Tom Porteous, deputy program director. Bill Van Esveld, senior researcher in the Children’s Rights Division, and Bill Frelick, Refugee Rights Director, provided expert reviews.
Interns in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch also contributed to this report.
This report was prepared for publication Olivia Hunter photography and publications associate, Jose Martinez senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank the individuals who generously took the time to speak with us about their experiences in military custody and before the military court. We are also grateful to the lawyers, activists, and staff at human rights organizations, including at Alef, Legal Agenda, and Alkarama who met with us in Lebanon and shared information and expertise crucial to this report. Human Rights Watch would also like to thank Legal Agenda, Alem & Associates, and the Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm for reviewing the report and providing feedback prior to its publication.