Law fails to expunge police torture

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Torture

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BEIRUT: “You get the slap before the hello,” said a former inmate, who preferred to remain anonymous. He was convicted for possession of 500 grams of hash in 2013; the interrogation in the police station cell was no joyride. The detainee was handcuffed to a bed and question after question ensued. “If you delay answering, they start beating you so you don’t have time to think of a lie,” said the former detainee, claiming he was beaten with fists and electric cables. But he had it easy; he said he was lucky because his interrogator was of the same religion and his sister worked for the police force. “They did not beat me as bad as others; I could hear detainees in the other room being pushed against the walls and closets, and they were screaming. It felt like they were flying across the room and smashing into the walls.”

There were threats too. “If you don’t speak we will hang you up like a farruj [chicken].” The confessions elicited from such interrogations are important. When the detainee made it to court, he said the judge placed a lot of weight on confessions made at the detention center. The minutes from the interrogation sessions do not mention under what circumstances confessions were made. Any physical or emotional abuse goes undetected or ignored.

In 2000, Lebanon ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Still, a U.N. report revealed in 2014 that systematic torture prevails in the country. Furthermore, and according to Article 401 of the Lebanese penal code, torture in Lebanon is only a petty crime, punishable by up to three years in jail. Psychological torture, which also occurs and is more difficult to diagnose, is not even mentioned.

Georges Ghali, director of programs at nonprofit group Alef – Act for Human Rights, defines torture in its broadest sense as any act with severe pain or suffering – physical or mental – and discrimination inflicted by a public official or acting authority with the motive of obtaining information, confession or punishment, in any place where personal freedom is withheld. Alef co-founder and Secretary-General Elie Abou Aoun underscored the wide acceptance of torture in Lebanese society as natural and commonplace and a legitimate means of law enforcement. Social change will take a long time observed Abou Aoun, but he believes the youth are more receptive to acknowledging the inhumanity of torture. Alef has organized many workshops to raise awareness among younger generations on the matter.

Over the last few years a group of stakeholders – state and nonstate actors – led by MP Ghassan Moukheiber, has drafted, revised and discussed a bill that would modify the definition and prosecution of torture, thereby aligning Lebanese law with international definitions set out by the UNCAT.

“There are many novelties to the law; we have modified it to include very explicitly the definition of the UNCAT, which is a very extensive and complete definition of torture which does include psychological pain,” Moukheiber said.

“As it stands in Lebanon it is very limited in scope; the [current] law only speaks of torture as physically inflicted pain,” added Moukheiber, who describes the criminalization of torture as very mildly enforced, especially if damages incurred by the victim are not visible or are temporary. Serious and permanent injuries or death are punishable.

Moukheiber underscored that the current law still makes torture illegal and that all relevant stakeholders were consulted in the process of modifying the law.

The bill has been submitted to Parliament, and the relevant committees – namely the Human Rights and Justice committees – have approved it. “I would expect that it would be voted [for] in Parliament. It has not been presented to the voting Parliament, not because of the subject matter, but because of our institutional failures,” Moukheiber said, referring to Lebanon’s current political deadlock. “It has to be put on the agenda of a meeting that is not happening for reasons that have nothing to do with torture, but everything to do with the current crisis.”

“The bill as submitted to Parliament is in full compliance with the definition of the convention against torture,” he assured. The Daily Star did not have the opportunity to see the bill.

In the meantime, torture in prisons persists. The president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, Wadih al-Asmar, said almost all individuals detained in security-related offenses are subjected to torture, while judges often disregard the fact that confessions were obtained under these circumstances.

“The general mentality is that if he didn’t do it, he would not have confessed,” Asmar said. An estimated 60 percent of all detainees face torture, he added. Perpetrators rationalize inducing fear for a higher purpose. Asmar said that according to law enforcement officers, the notion that “we are just scaring him,” is justifiable.

Internal Security Forces members who torture detainees may be reprimanded, Asmar said, which stops the immediate act of torture, but does not prevent it from recurring. “Electricity is used because it leaves no marks; other methods such as threatening a family member, or having detainees listen to others being tortured, may be used to induce psychological pressure,” he added. Head of both the ISF’s Human Rights and Training departments, Col. Ziad Kaed Bey attributes part of the problem to overcrowded prisons, which have forced police cells to hold more prisoners for longer. Moreover, Lebanon is still suffering the repercussions of the Civil War, during which all values and morals were forsaken, he said. The Lebanese have a violent culture where children may be beaten in the interest of disciplining them to succeed at school, he added. “Add to this [Civil War], 26 years of all kinds of instability and turmoil; we are not in a healthy place and this is reflected in families and homes, and members of ISF also come from this environment,” Kaed Bey said.

The ISF code of conduct, which first came out in 2012, mentions the phrase “human rights” at least 19 times. The document defines the morals to be upheld by ISF forces on duty, but does not set out penalties in cases of infraction. Kaed Bey said this is because the code of conduct is a general document. He claimed the newest version of the code, published just weeks ago, gives less weight to confessions, which are commonly viewed as the highest level of evidence.

“We want to teach our forces that even if they attain a confession through torture or without, this confession is not an absolute. Confessions have to be corroborated,” Kaed Bey said.

“If there are any infractions I invite anyone to file a complaint with the ISF. The director-general Maj. Gen. [Ibrahim Basbous] does not accept torture in any police station, and if it is proven, no person will be spared the necessary measures,” he said.

“I am not denying occurrences of torture, it is terrible and corrupt, but I have to be informed about it [through the filing of complaints]. ... I believe two things [can address the issue]: training and accountability [through internal review],” he added. Kaed Bey believes that the human element is what can make a difference, and this is where he would like to invest. Alef’s Ghali does not believe training the ISF is enough. “It is a question of behavior and attitude,” he said. Ghali also raised the issue of proper care for psychological torture, which requires experts and time to evaluate and determine. He said that the international framework covers the issue well, but there has to be the political will to address all aspects of torture.

“In general, parliamentarians who signed the UNCAT in 2000 did not read it, and overlooked the obligations that signing the convention would commit Lebanon to,” he said. “We have an ill conception of justice. ... The presumption of innocence is reversed to ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ and people accept torture for those who are guilty of a crime.”

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