Rifi reveals draft law limiting Military Tribunal powers

The Daily Star

Nazih Osseiran

Military Court

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Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi unveiled Friday a draft law proposing the establishment of specialized judicial bodies to prosecute suspected terrorists and other crimes related to national security, drastically limiting the reach of the military court. The move is aimed at abolishing the controversial custom of referring such cases to the Military Tribunal, which Rifi said “impedes the rule of law in the nation and denies people their basic human rights, especially their right to a fair trial.

“We have human rights obligations that are an integral part of our constitution,” he added, during a news conference that he held at the Justice Ministry.

Human rights organizations have long decried the expanded prerogatives of the Military Tribunal and the lack of transparency in the court’s proceedings as a violation of the human right to a fair trial.

Rifi said he would propose the draft law in an upcoming Cabinet meeting, adding that there were 10 MPs who supported the bill.

“I will do everything in my power to get this bill through to Parliament, I will not stop [applying pressure] until it is passed,” he added.

The specialized courts proposed by Rifi would exclusively prosecute terrorism cases and other major crimes, including human trafficking, money laundering and all offenses “aimed at sowing sectarian discord and civil war in the nation by forming armed gangs.”

The inclusion of human trafficking in particular falls within Lebanon’s pledge to increase efforts aimed at combating the crime and retain its “tier 2” standing with the U.S. Department of State. The status implies that Lebanon is employing efforts to crack down on the crime.

It is no coincidence that Rifi’s announcement was made on the anniversary of the student protests of 2001, when hundreds of Lebanese who opposed Syria’s tutelage over the country took to the streets. The justice minister said the day “saw injustice prevail in Lebanon, and our freedoms undermined.”

Many were beaten by the authorities during demonstrations. About 77 anti-Syria activists were subsequently referred to the Military Tribunal and charged. When the Court of Cassation at the time ruled that the Military Tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to try them, referring them to a civilian court instead, the chief military prosecutor filed an appeal before the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.

Judge Ralph Riachi, considered one of the few independent judges presiding at the time, resigned after the appeal, reportedly pressured by politicians. It was an episode that revealed how deep Syrian influence ran in Lebanese courts. The activists were eventually tried in a civilian court and set free.

Rifi said the events of Aug. 7, 2001 remained entrenched as a “bad memory for exceptional courts” that “tarnished the image of an independent judiciary.”

The new bill, if approved, would scale back the jurisdiction of the Military Tribunal over civilian matters and limit its functions to prosecuting military personnel only.

“We are following the example of Judge Ralph Riachi,” the justice minister added.

The draft law includes a definition of terrorism in line with criminal, rather than military courts, and introduces a two-stage appeals process, abolishing the Judicial Council. The Council tries crimes jeopardizing national security and its verdicts can not be appealed.

The bill will also “put the Lebanese justice system in harmony with international law and human rights conventions,” the minister said.

Rifi also noted the importance of establishing the specialized courts in order “to avoid another [former Minister Michel] Samaha case,” which he said “rendered the judiciary a prisoner of political calculation.”

This year the military court convicted Samaha of serious terror-related offenses including forming an armed gang, smuggling explosives from Syria into Lebanon and attempting to assassinate political and religious figures, and sentenced him to three years behind bars including time served, a verdict many considered too light. Samaha was arrested in August 2012.

“Lebanon is a state that adheres to the rule of law, and such a ruling contradicts that,” Rifi said, referring to the Samaha case. If the proposed bill passes then such cases such as Samaha’s would be tried by the specialized courts, far from the interference of corrupt Lebanese politics, he said.

The bill “will give the judiciary the powers to completely fulfill its role as an independent body,” Rifi added.

But, Rifi said, all court appointments are to be made through a decree that is issued “based on the suggestion of the justice minister.”

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