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Protests, quarrels and slammed fists: Lebanon's amnesty bill row rumbles on

Heated scenes in and out of parliament as quarrelling MPs failed to reach an agreement on the draft legislation
Protesters clash with riot police in Beirut ahead of a parliamentary session on a controversial amnesty law, on 28 May (Reuters)
By Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut

Inside parliament and out, a controversial Lebanese amnesty bill has been stoking anger, drawing resentment and sparking quarrels and protests. Postponed once again on Thursday evening, it is a row that looks set to rumble on.

Divisions between parties at the last minute hampered an agreement on the bill, which had removed a controversial provision that would allow ex-militants who collaborated with Israel during its occupation of southern Lebanon to return home. 

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri slammed his table angrily as MPs, including the Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, threatened to leave the session, which was then adjourned before the adaptation of the amnesty law.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other Future Movement MPs left the session telling the media that there was constant interference to prevent lawmakers from reaching a consensus. 

“I don’t know why they find a way to outsmart each other in this country so each one comes out looking like a hero,” an outraged Hariri told reporters.

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The amnesty bill was among 37 measures to be discussed on Thursday, the third time parliament had met for a legislative session since the coronavirus outbreak. The session was held at a makeshift conference hall at Beirut’s Unesco Palace in accordance with social distancing measures.

Amnesty for ‘Israeli agents’

Although discussion of the draft amnesty law didn’t take place until Thursday evening, in the morning demonstrators in surgical masks and wearing keffiyehs - traditional scarves associated with Palestinian resistance - had gathered outside the Unesco Palace.

The demonstrators were voicing their opposition against the provision in the draft bill that would allow ex-militants who collaborated with Israel during its occupation of southern Lebanon to return as long as they relinquish their Israeli nationality.

“Qana urges you to not let the [Israeli] agents return,” one sign read, referring to the southern town that Israel shelled twice; once at a United Nations compound in 1996 where civilians sought refuge, and another time in 2006 which killed 54 civilians, over half of which were children.

Protesters clashed with riot police as they tried to cross barricades on a road leading to the Unesco Palace. A similar and more peaceful protest was also reported in the southern city of Sidon.

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Following the end of Israel’s 15-year occupation of southern Lebanon two decades ago, on 25 May 2000, members of Israel-aligned South Lebanon army militia fled southward with their families fearing reprisal. Some found their way into the United States and other countries, though others stayed primarily in border towns. 

Discussions of a general amnesty in recent years focused particularly on Sunni prisoners accused of joining militant groups and Shia prisoners accused of taking part in illicit drug trading. Many of these prisoners have spent years in detention without standing trial, and some have stayed beyond their legal terms if they were sentenced in the first place. 

But last week, the controversial article related to Lebanon and its southern neighbour - backed by most of the country’s Christian parties - turned a discussion among MPs into an angry confrontation. MP Michel Moawad, who supports the controversial article on behalf of Lebanon’s quarrelling Christian parties, and MP Jihad al-Samad of the Amal Party took part in a shouting match that was resolved only after other lawmakers separated them.

MPs who support the provision, such as Neemat Frem, argue that Lebanon is obliged to allow any of its citizens to return to their country of origin - even if they are in Israel, a country officially at war with Lebanon. 

“Just like we repatriated [Lebanese nationals] with corona[virus], we are forced to bring them back,” Frem told local television station MTV. 

Delay and controversy

However, the general amnesty draft law has been delayed and revised for years, and has been the subject of a variety of disputes. 

The vote was initially set to take place during a two-day parliamentary session on 21 April. Two amnesty draft laws were presented: one by Future Movement MP Bahia Hariri, the other by Amal Movement MP Yassine Jabber. 

The law was never voted on and referred to further discussion and analysis, with the bulk of disapproval coming from Christian parties the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces.

Many speculate that it could fade into obscurity as it did in 2018

Between 2018 and 2020, the general amnesty draft law had been on the parliament's agenda, not once but twice. But civil society organisations cited some problematic articles in the law, and protestors had prevented parliament from establishing a quorum both times, blocking MPs’ convoys from arriving.

The stumbling blocks, according to Human Rights Watch, included provisions that would pardon officials from corruption-related crimes, environmental crimes, and even torture. 

Treatment of prisoners

For years, families of Sunni Islamists from Tripoli and Sidon, as well as families from the Bekaa region protested for a general amnesty. Charges range from radicalism to weapons and drug-related charges. Families often claim that detained relatives have spent far too long in pretrial detention - sometimes longer than the term they would have been sentenced to - or have been unfairly tried.

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At the same time, a popular uprising sparked last October to topple Lebanon’s ruling elite, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, instigated riots among detainees in Lebanese prisons.

Mobile phone footage from riots swarmed social media from Qobbe, Roumieh, and Zahle prisons. Additional videos showed prisoners starting large fires and others inflicting self-harm by slicing themselves with knives or glass shards. 

Human rights organisations have frequently expressed their disapproval of Lebanese prison conditions. Amnesty International most recently called it “revolting”. The Covid-19 pandemic in Lebanon has not only reopened conversations about a general amnesty, but also the possibility of unsanitary and overcrowded prisons becoming a hotbed for the virus.

The wife of a prisoner in Lebanon told Amnesty that the only measure taken in light of the outbreak was that prisoners were gathered and sprayed with water and disinfectant.

A detainee in Zahle Prison, on the condition of anonymity, told MEE that there is fear of the virus spreading in the prison. “We’re 40 people in 60 square-meter room,” they said. “We sleep side-by-side … like a can of sardines.” 

“There are cockroaches everywhere… they climb on your face while you’re asleep,” the prisoner explained. “The electricity is out for most of the day … you can’t see the sun anyway.”

“I hate Lebanon because of this place.”

While none of the general amnesty draft laws tackle prison and legal reform, in March 2019, then-interior minister Raya el-Hassan announced that Lebanon will start working on improving prison conditions through a programme funded by the United States Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs through its embassy. 

The following September, as Lebanon was on the cusp of a bludgeoning fiscal crisis, el-Hassan presented the “Roadmap to Transitioning to a Rehabilitative Detention System” to ambassadors and UN officials, potential donors. 

However, it appears there has been no development on the matter since, and it is unclear where it lies on current Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy’s list of priorities.

Problematic justice system

The detainee in Zahle told MEE that a general amnesty would be welcome. 

“It would be a great thing because what they’re doing to us here is not fair. It’s torture,” they told MEE. “Some people here are so nice, and they may have made mistakes. They took drugs? Come on! Everyone’s made a mistake like that!”

In addition to the plethora of non-violent drug-related crime cases in Lebanon’s prisons, there is also an issue related to the Lebanese justice system.

'There is no excuse for holding people for years in detention generally before they have the right to appear before a judge'

- Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch

“Some [detainees] are held for years without ever seeing a judge,” Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch Aya Majzoub told MEE. “There is no excuse for holding people for years in detention generally before they have the right to appear before a judge.”

Majzoub added that there are many cases of prisoners spending more time in pre-trial detention than they would have spent if they had been sentenced in the first place.

The Human Rights Watch researcher believes that a general amnesty wouldn’t address the structural causes of these human rights violations and abuses.

“It would help people currently in the system, but it doesn’t really provide any legal reform to the system,” Majzoub explained, adding that it’s crucial that Lebanon ensures that “people who commit crimes in the future have fair trial and due process guaranteed”.

In addition, some critics of the general amnesty law say that it is nothing but a mere tool of Lebanon’s infamous political patronage from ruling parties at a time when they are faced with scrutiny over the dire economy. 

A 'sectarian' matter

Lebanon is going through arguably its worst economic and fiscal crisis in its history. Its local currency has lost about 60 percent of its value since September 2019, while a shortage of US dollars in the country since then has left the country struggling to bring in wheat, medicine, fuel and other essential goods. 

A popular uprising against the political elite rocked the country last October, and since late April some Lebanese have been breaking the coronavirus lockdown to protest the ever-worsening economic conditions.

“We see how sectarian the matter is,” Lebanese Center for Policy Studies researcher Nadim el-Kak told MEE, citing Future Movement’s Sunni connection to Islamist detainees, and Amal Movement’s Shia connection to those in the Bekaa on drugs and weapons-related charges. 

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“A lot of the most vulnerable families - the ones struggling the most - are families who have members in jail.”

El-Kak believes that it’s an appeal that only serves as temporary gratification, but does a disservice to the detainees, their families, and others in Lebanon demanding meaningful change.

“A lot of the political parties and figures pushing for it [are] framing it as a social justice issue where they’re trying to do good [for] the people,” he said. “But what kind of economy and what kind of society would these people be returning to?”

Back in Zahle, detainees feel let down by the constant delay.

“We had our hopes [up] … about the meeting in parliament … but then they extended it again,” they told MEE. 

“It would have been better if they didn’t even talk about it.”

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