Lebanon has a new anti-torture law — finally

In July 2017, a Lebanese military prosecutor dismissed allegations that four Syrian men had been tortured to death at the hands of the Lebanese army, following a raid on an informal Syrian refugee camp in the Arsal area.

At Amnesty International, we analyzed photos of the victims with the help of forensic experts and concluded that at least three of the four men had suffered trauma to the head, legs and arms. This should have triggered a thorough investigation with public disclosure of the findings. Instead, the military prosecutor announced that the men had died of “natural causes,” without releasing any further information to the public.

The decision of the military prosecutor came as no surprise. It was not the first time that the army stood accused of subjecting detainees to torture or other forms of treatment that are cruel, inhuman, or degrading. Over the past four years alone, Amnesty International documented four cases of death in custody as a result of torture—the actual number is likely much higher. All were dismissed, leaving victims and their families stripped of any measure of justice in a military court system that lacks both transparency and independence, and that should not be trying civilians to begin with.

It is for this reason that human rights activists and organizations expressed some measure of disappointment when the new anti-torture law was ratified in October 2017. The new law fails to explicitly state that the Military Court is not qualified to hear cases involving allegations of torture. According to the Code of Military Justice, any crimes related to military personnel are subject to the Military Court’s jurisdiction. The new law explicitly states that torture cases will be heard in regular courts, but it does not prevent military courts from investigating and trying allegations of torture related to the security and military institutions.

It took years of national and international human rights groups pressuring Lebanese authorities to address alleged crimes of torture and fully comply with the UN’s Convention against Torture ratified in 2000 for the Lebanese Parliament to finally pass theLaw Aiming to Punish Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

For the first time, the Lebanese Penal Code includes a definition of torture. Before the new law was passed, domestic law avoided an absolute criminalization of torture. Instead, Article 401 vaguely defined torture as “violent practices not permitted by the law … with the intention to extract a confession of a crime or information related to it.”

As well as criminalizing torture, the new law specifies the inadmissibility of statements extracted under torture, urges the public prosecutor to act on complaints or notices of torture within 48 hours, establishes the right to rehabilitation, and declares torture to be a crime non-justifiable by necessity or national security requirements.

But the law has other shortcomings apart from the issue of military court jurisdiction. For instance, it adopts a statute of limitations of three to 10 years for prosecuting torture that starts the moment the victim is released from prison or detention. This statute of limitations disregards international law and standards and the right of victims to seek justice and remedy. The law also restricts investigations into claims of torture only if the latter took place during specific points of a trial (pre-detention, preliminary investigations, judicial investigations, trials, or execution of sentences). It does not address acts that fall outside this context, such as violence during arrest, or the use of force against unresisting protesters. In other words, perpetrators could escape prosecution in situations that are not covered by this law.

In short, the new law sets a national legal framework for criminalizing torture, but it must be fully implemented, and should be amended to address the existing loopholes in domestic law, which allow perpetrators to escape justice.

Human rights organizations were key in advocating for this law, and their roles in monitoring the implementation of the law and continuing to put forward and lobby for amendments as necessary are crucial to ensure victims’ full access to accountability, redress, and justice.

Sahar Mandour is Lebanon Researcher at Amnesty International