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Death in Lebanon’s Interrogation Centers

Law 191 is a legislative victory as it provides basic defense guarantees for a person suspected of a crime in Lebanon. In practice, however, some security agencies still do not respect or apply it.

A photo recently went viral on social media platforms, showing the body of Syrian refugee Bashar Abdel Saud, who died of torture while in custody of Lebanon’s State Security agency. The picture showed marks of brutal beating, flogging, and more, covering the victim’s entire body. On August 30, 2022, Abdel Saud had been arrested in Beirut’s Shatila camp before he was handed over to the State Security agency. According to eyewitnesses, agents tied Abdel Saud’s hands and feet, forced him to keep his head lowered, and took him to the State Security agency’s offices in Tibnin in the South. There were conflicting reports about the reasons behind his arrest, some reports claimed that he confessed to being affiliated with the Islamic State, while others stated that he was a member of a drug trafficking network, or that he was involved in counterfeiting a $50 bill.

Abdel Saud’s death was referred to the military court for investigation, in a violation of Article 15 of Lebanon’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which stipulates that crimes committed by members of the judicial police while performing their duties assisting the Attorney General fall within the jurisdiction of the civil judiciary only. As a result, human rights organizations made a statement calling for the case to be referred to the civil criminal court.

On November 29, Chief Najat Abu Shaqra, the military judge in charge of the case, indicted an officer and four other members of the police for torture, under Law 65 of 2017. They were consequently referred to a military court for trial. 

Although the decision raised many questions in terms of the power of the military judiciary system, it was considered a historic one because it documented brutal violations committed in a State Security interrogation center. In addition, this is the first time that Law 65 of 2017 criminalizing torture is applied against members of the security forces.

This article attempts to answer several questions on rights of detainees during interrogation: Though there are existing laws meant to protect detainees during preliminary interrogations, how are flagrant violations still committed by security agencies? Are human rights respected in all cases, or in specific cases only and by some of the security services? Are these laws applied or considered as a mere legislative decoration in some cases? 

Article 47 of the 2001 Code of Criminal Procedure constitutes the cornerstone of the right to defense. It is an explicit legal provision that enshrines basic guarantees for any person suspected of committing a crime, whether they are Lebanese, foreign, or stateless. The right of defense should be applied from the first moment of detention and throughout the period of interrogation carried out by the judicial police. In accordance with Article 47, the judicial police must inform detainees of their rights and allow them to benefit from them. 

At its core, Article 47 acts as a protector of fundamental civil rights, upholding one’s personal freedom and right to defense. It also protects any suspect from violence, torture, and abuse of power, among other things. The most prominent rights guaranteed by Article 47 are a suspect’s right to remain silent, and to contact a family member, employer, a lawyer of their choosing, or an acquaintance. A suspect also has the right to see a lawyer appointed by them by submitting a written statement in the interrogation room. They also have the right to seek the assistance of a sworn translator if they cannot speak Arabic. They also have the right to submit a request to the Public Prosecutor to be referred to a doctor for medical examination. However, Article 47 states that a suspect has the right “to see a lawyer,” without explicitly mentioning whether the lawyer can attend the preliminary interrogation or not, provided that this meeting between lawyer and suspect takes place immediately after the arrest, at the suspect’s request, and before the interrogation is initiated, otherwise it loses its effect and purpose.

On September 30, 2020, Law 191 was issued, with the aim to strengthen basic human rights guarantees and activate defense rights. This law amended Article 47, giving the suspect the right to seek the assistance of a lawyer to attend preliminary interrogations. Law 191 also provides anyone suspected of a crime with other rights, such as the right of lawyer-client confidentiality, to inform the suspect of the charges and the evidence against them, and to submit a request to be examined by a doctor. Additionally, according to the new law, the judicial police must immediately inform the suspect of their rights under penalty of nullity of the record, the interrogation procedures must be videotaped, and the recordings must be attached to the preliminary interrogation record, or else both the record and subsequent procedures may be deemed invalid. 

It is worth mentioning that this law was adopted following the October 2019 nationwide protests. Law 191 was at the center of one of the main human rights battles during the uprising. It was led by the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters and it consequently solidified suspects’ right to contact and consult a lawyer before being interrogated. Even though Article 47 is clear in stating a suspect’s right to exercise this right, the detaining authorities have always purposefully misinterpreted the provision. Things started to change when Melhem Khalaf was elected as president of the Beirut Bar Association on November 17, 2019. Khalaf—who volunteered to defend demonstrators in court during the 2015 trash protests—officially involved the bar association in the battle surrounding Article 47. On November 19, 2019, the judicial police refused to allow lawyers to enter the Helou Barracks to meet with 12 demonstrators who had been arrested during a sit-in in downtown Beirut. Later that night, Khalaf, accompanied by lawyers, entered the barracks to see the detainees. After leaving the station, he announced to the demonstrators: “From now on, no place will be closed to a lawyer!” 

Evidently, opening the doors of police stations to lawyers provides detainees with a glimmer of hope. It allows for the protection of their rights and makes oversight possible. Therefore, Law 191 is considered a human rights victory and is a legislative achievement that should be maintained. However, in practice, there are still some loopholes either in the law itself or in its application by the security services.

Practical loopholes of Law 191

First, all the rights mentioned in Article 47, especially a suspect’s right to seek the assistance of a lawyer during interrogation, are not granted to the suspect unless they explicitly request them. According to the provision, the judicial officer conducting the interrogation must inform the suspect of their rights, and the latter has the option to benefit from them or not. 

This poses a serious threat to detainees’ rights. On the one hand, a detainee may give up their rights out of fear or may not even know their rights to begin with. On the other hand, many interrogation officers falsely note in interrogation records that a detainee was informed of their rights but had refused to benefit from them. In this case, the detainee’s signature on their statements makes it difficult to refute the waiver or prove that the statement and signature were taken under duress. The majority of interrogation records with the judicial police claim that suspects have refused to benefit from any of their rights: this begs the question of why a person would refuse to inform their family of their arrest or where they are held. From this standpoint, Law 191 requests filming the interrogations to limit these violations. 

Second, the amended law limits the maximum detention period by the judicial police to four days based on a decision made by the Attorney General. After those four days, a detainee must appear before the investigating judge without delay, otherwise the detainee is considered to be illegally detained. The new law stipulates that “after the end of the detention period, the Attorney General may not take any action of any kind against the detained person, and the judicial police must transfer the detainee from the detention center in which he was interrogated in to any other center not belonging to the same department, provided that this is recorded in the report before concluding it, under penalty of nullity.” In practice some detainees remain detained for a month or more before appearing in court for the first time.

Third, in most interrogation centers, a copy of Article 47 of the Criminal Code hangs on the wall. In practice, respecting this law depends on the crime the accused is being held over and the security agency conducting the investigations. For instance, a lawyer may be allowed to accompany a suspect to an interrogation center for a common crime, such as writing a bad check. This may change completely when it comes to suspects accused of terrorism, or demonstrators arrested during the October 2019 protests. Similarly, the application of Article 47 differs based on which agency conducts the investigation. For example, the Army Intelligence and State Security do not apply this article at all, under the pretext of alleged “security concerns.” 

During January 2021 protests in Tripoli, numerous protesters were arrested and 35 of them went missing, including two minors. Noone knew whether they were held by the Army Intelligence or the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch. When lawyers tried to contact these agencies to know the missing protesters’ whereabouts, they were given inaccurate information, prompting lawyers commissioned by the Bar Association in Tripoli to submit a notice to the Attorney General’s Court of Cassation for the crime of enforced disappearance, with strong indicators that some of them were subjected to torture.

Following these arrests in Tripoli, the Internal Security Forces issued a circular with a picture of a missing minor who had supposedly left his family’s house two days prior to the protests and had not returned. The circular urged the public to contact the police station if they had any information about him. However, the missing minor appeared before the military court days after his disappearance—he had been held by an Army Intelligence unit only a few meters away from the police station that was looking for him! This case acts as prime evidence for the common occurrence of enforced disappearances, the extent of the arbitrariness of the security services, and the lack of inter-agency coordination.

Lack of audiovisual recordings of interrogations

As mentioned earlier, Law 191 requires an audiovisual recording of interrogation procedures, starting from the moment the defendant’s rights are read. To date, nearly two years after the law was issued, interrogation centers have still not been equipped with the necessary devices to film interrogations. The reason for this, according to those concerned, is the high cost of equipping all interrogation centers with the needed devices. 

Mazen Hoteit, lawyer and head of the Committee for the Follow-up on the Implementation of Article 47 at the Beirut Bar Association, and a founding member of the Lawyers Committee for the Defense of Demonstrators, states that the Internal Security Forces Directorate has claimed that the cost of providing all interrogation centers with equipment to film interrogations is estimated at $26,200,000, in addition to the $550,000 needed annually to buy CDs. In this regard, the Attorney General of the Court of Cassation issued a circular on March 11, 2021, in which he exempted interrogation centers from filming the interrogation sessions until the Lebanese state disburses the necessary funds to secure the technical equipment. This circular provides security services with a pretext to abandon recording preliminary interrogations, even in centers that are already equipped with recording devices, such as the Army Intelligence Center in Yarzeh and the Information Branch in the Internal Security Forces’ General Headquarters. Therefore, these agencies do not apply the law despite the existence of the necessary equipment. 

The importance of filming interrogations lies in the fact that it constitutes a real guarantee to ensure that the judicial police respects suspects’ rights stipulated in Article 47. It also ensures the law is applied, and that no signature or waiver of a suspect’s rights are collected under duress. 

Theoretically, a detainee who was subjected to torture and forced to sign a false statement stating that the interrogator informed them of their rights may request that this statement be annulled by a court. Without taped proof, however, it is harder to get preliminary interrogations nullified. It is extremely difficult to annul an interrogation due to violations later on in the process, and therefore it is important to make sure actual guarantees are implemented at the early moments of the interrogation.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Law 191 of 2020 is one of the most important legal reforms to have been recently included into the Lebanese Penal System. However, the practices of the security services remain far from the human rights guarantees outlined in Article 47, with the prevalence of a culture of obtaining confessions under duress. In addition to this, the severe economic crisis that Lebanon is going through has led to an almost complete paralysis of the justice system, with strikes of judges and judicial assistants, and the lack of necessary equipment in justice palaces.

Human rights organizations should be committed to raising awareness about the rights of suspects so that this knowledge becomes a norm. Likewise, lawyers, backed by the Beirut and Tripoli Bar Associations, must press for the application of these guarantees in police stations and courts. The Lebanese state must also ensure the implementation of Law 191 in terms of the audiovisual recording of interrogations by providing interrogation centers with the necessary equipment. Until all interrogation centers are equipped with recording devices, the state should at the very least guarantee that interrogations are filmed in centers already equipped with cameras. 

With the hope that one day, we may have security services and preliminary interrogations taking human dignity into account.

.اقرأ المقال بالعربي

Omar Taleb is a Lebanese human rights lawyer with over eight years of experience in litigation.


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