Lebanese soldiers stand guard outside the military court in Beirut 11 August 2001

Inside Lebanon’s Military Court: No place for civilians

Sahar Mandour is Amnesty International’s Researcher on Lebanon and has been attending a historic torture trial at the country’s Military Court examining the death in custody of Syrian refugee Bashar Abed Saud, following claims of torture at the hands of State Security Agency members. The fifth session and expected verdict is scheduled for 5 July. She’s determined to seek justice, truth and reparation for Bashar’s family. Here, she recounts her insights into a trial process dominated by the Military.

As I stood in front of the Military Court on 16 December 2022, I felt a mixture of bravery and fear. I felt brave, because I had made a formal request to the Military to attend this court session, and fearful, as I didn’t receive approval but decided to show up anyway and request it in person. Although court sessions are supposed to be open to the public, in practice, showing up without prior approval could be viewed as defiant and put me on their radar.

As a non-Lebanese national living in the country on a residency card basis, I felt particularly vulnerable at the Military Court. I tried to imagine how much harder the situation would be for a Syrian refugee standing before a Military tribunal in Lebanon: terrified to death.

I was there to attend a historic trial: the first torture case to reach court (civil or military) since Lebanon passed Law 65 in 2017 criminalizing torture. Since 2017, I have documented the torture and other ill-treatment of dozens of activists, refugees, members of the LGBTI+ community, and other civilians and soldiers alike, in Lebanese detention centres. Despite the dozens of torture complaints filed over the past seven years, none had ever reached trial.

A local newspaper exposed the torture of Bashar Abed Saud in September 2022, and published leaked photos documenting gruesome cuts and burns on his dead body. It was hard for the Military to bury this case. It was hard for anyone to shrug and turn the page having seen these photos.

Bashar died on 30 August 2022, after just one day in the custody of Lebanon’s State Security Agency. In a groundbreaking indictment in November 2022, the investigative military judge accused five State Security members of torturing him to death.

At the first trial session on 16 December 2022, the five members presented the same account of the events that led to Bashar’s death – placing the blame on only one officer for beating him to contain him.

At the second session on 5 May 2023, I sat in the Military Court from 9 am until late afternoon awaiting the trial, but as soon as the judge announced it, a judge had to adjourn the session because one of the defendant’s lawyer was absent.

The lawyer appointed by Bashar’s family requested that Amnesty International continue to attend the court sessions especially because dozens of torture complaints against security and military agencies have been dismissed without investigation. He feared that once eyes look away, the Court would close this case too.

Researchers from other organizations joined me, and together we acted as a human rights convoy symbolically observing the Court not to dismiss such a horrifying case of torture, especially given that the victim, as a refugee, belonged to one of the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon. Three sessions were adjourned due to the absence of a lawyer or a forensic doctor, but I continued to attend every session.

“Compassion and mercy, your honour”

These trial sessions gave me a rare insight into the workings of the Military Court. It is run on discipline – defendants are seated in a cage during the proceedings and are required to show the utmost respect to the judge: they stand to attention, hold their hands behind their backs and must ask for permission to be allowed to speak.

In one day at court, the judge reviews at least 30 cases. At the end of each brief interrogation, the judge asks the defendant: “What do you request from the Court?”

The typical response is: “Compassion and mercy, your honour”.

These words stayed with me. One should request justice from a court, yet it seems these defendants only feel able to hope for compassion or mercy.

When one of the five defendants’ lawyers requested that the first session be held privately, the judge rejected the request, stating: “Amnesty International’s researcher is in the audience, and it is a matter of public opinion: we have nothing to hide”.

In a case like Bashar’s, the family lawyer is not allowed to address the judge directly or present notes and evidence to the prosecutor during the court session. The victim is an afterthought – this is about the military trying their own.

“A complete file”

At the time of his death, Bashar was 30 years old and had three children, including a one-month-old baby. He had defected from the Syrian army eight years before his arrest and moved to Lebanon to work as a porter. He lived with his family in the Sabra and Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut.

In the last two years, I documented Bashar’s life exhaustively yet was never able to talk directly to his family – who were understandably afraid. Refugees in Lebanon are in a precarious position and remain at risk of arrest and deportation at any moment.

During the hearings, according to the officers’ narrative, Bashar confessed to being a drug dealer and addict, a member of a terrorist organization, and an arms smuggler after his arrest by the Military Police. They claimed he arrived at the State Security office high on Captagon, a synthetic narcotic. “He had taken two, three, four or five pills, sir”, said the officer, denying he was beaten. The forensic report, however, confirmed that there were no drugs in his system.

They said that Bashar was agitated, resisted interrogation and hit an officer “known for his temper and high self-esteem”. The officer hit the refugee twice, with a phone charger wire to subdue him. The refugee collapsed as a result of drug use, they claimed.

“Why would we torture him if he already confessed?!”, said the officer in charge to the judge.

The judge asked the angry officer: “Is it true that you are known for beating detainees?”

His response: “I only beat them hard for confessions if they’re arrested on terrorism charges.”

The judge listened intently, interrogated thoroughly and with vigour.

Bashar, the deceased refugee, was mentioned only through the narrative of the people accused of killing him.

By the fourth session, all the defendants had been released from detention, including the “angry officer” accused of carrying out the beating.

The judge informed the prosecution that Bashar’s family had dropped charges against the officers. There have been whispers that Bashar’s family had been intimidated into dropping the charges. Who could blame them?

As we await the verdict on 5 July, one thing is patently clear: this trial is not about justice for Bashar and his family, but more an internal disciplinary process for the military to protect and punish, differentiate between “honest mistakes” and shameful behaviour, and reaffirm that military discipline is above critique.

There is never any justification for torture. Suspected perpetrators of torture must be held accountable in independent and impartial proceedings that meet international fair trial standards. The Military Court does not meet these requirements and its jurisdiction over criminal cases, like the jurisdiction of any military court or commission, should always be limited to trials of military personnel for breaches of military discipline. For Lebanese authorities to be serious about eliminating torture in detention facilities, they must refer such cases to ordinary civilian courts, regardless of the accusations against victims of torture, whether terrorism, arm smuggling, drug use, or simple agitation in an interrogation room.