BEIRUT (AP) Khaldoun Jaber was taking part in an anti-government protest near the presidential palace outside Beirut last November when several plainclothes Lebanese intelligence officers approached him and took him by force.
The demonstration was part of a wave of protests involving Lebanon against corruption and misconduct by a group of politicians who have monopolized power since the country’s civil war ended three decades ago.
Jaber did not know it then, but Lebanese security forces targeted him because of his posts on social media criticizing President Michel Aoun. What followed was the disturbing 48 hours of detention during which security officers interrogated him and subjected him to physical abuse, before letting him go.
I was beaten, psychologically and morally damaged, Jaber said. Three of my teeth were broken and I lost 70% of my hearing in my left ear.
I’m still traumatized, he added.
A year after mass protests engulfed Lebanon, dozens of protesters are being tried in military courts, proceedings that human rights lawyers say seriously violate due process and fail to investigate allegations of torture and abuse. Defendants tried before the military tribunal say the system is used to intimidate protesters and support Lebanese sectarian rulers.
About 90 civilians have been referred to the military justice system so far, according to the Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based human rights group.
We expect many more people to be prosecuted, said Ghida Frangieh, a group lawyer.
The trials underscore the growing dangers of activism in Lebanon, where a series of lawsuits and judicial investigations against journalists and critics have tarnished the country’s reputation for free speech and tolerance in a predominantly autocratic Arab world.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm did not respond to a request for comment. Lebanese officials do not usually address the question of why civil cases are being tried in the military court system. Security forces have denied beating and torturing protesters and activists in custody.
Frangieh said security forces arrested about 1,200 people from the start of the anti-government uprising in October 2019 until the end of June. Lebanese authorities have prosecuted about 200 of them, including those who referred to the military judiciary, the monitoring team found.
Two months after his arrest, Jaber received an official announcement saying military prosecutors were accusing him of assaulting security forces at Baabda Palace when civilian clothing agents arrested him.
I was shocked when I was summoned to the military court, Jaber said.
The trial did not take place until October 7, when a military court found Jaber not guilty of assaulting security officers, which is a war crime under Lebanese law, but said he had no jurisdiction over a second charge, that of insulting President.
Like Jaber, many detained protesters find out just a month or so after their release that authorities have referred them to military courts. Many of these cases were scheduled for hearings this November and December, Frangieh said, before a two-week nationwide shutdown on the coronavirus pandemic temporarily closed courts.
The Jabers case is an example of how military prosecutors try to claim jurisdiction over civil cases by typically filing more than one indictment, including one that is a war crime, said Frangieh, who represents the protesters before the military tribunal and is also part of Advocates Committee for the Protection of Protesters.
There was no evidence, Frangieh said of Jaber’s accusation of assaulting security officers. He was abducted during a protest, but he was targeted because of his social media posts criticizing the president.
The military prosecution closed, without investigation, a torture complaint Jaber had filed, she added.
Under the Legal Agenda, military courts usually issue summary decisions on the same day of the trial, without issuing an explanation.
There are indeed many doubts about the fairness and arbitrariness of decisions issued by the court, she said, adding that when defendants are convicted, the legal basis of the sentence is not immediately shared with their lawyers.
Military prosecutors often neglect to read the full case files prepared by military intelligence reports, or suddenly drop or change charges during trials, according to Frangieh and another lawyer with the committee representing the protesters, Ayman Raad.
Military courts have no business judging civilians, said Aya Majzoub, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. The international rights group has called on the Lebanese parliament to end the disturbing practice by passing a law to remove civilians entirely from the jurisdiction of the military tribunal.
Georges Abou Fadel was summoned for a military trial on October 30 after being arrested during a protest a year ago in the city of Beit Mery, east of Beirut. During his trial, the military prosecutor asked the judge for time to read the case report, then asked to change the charge against Abou Fadel from assaulting security forces to the smallest charge of nonviolent resistance to arrest.
The court found him not guilty, but Abou Fadel said he was not relieved, knowing that there would be more trials for my friends, for the people protesting, for anyone who is trying to claim his rights.
Lawyers, rights activists and defendants describe the military prosecution of protesters and other civilians as another node in Lebanon’s sectarian system network that protects the power of its politicians better than the rights of citizens.
This is one of the tools used by sectarian parties, “said Abou Fadel, keeping their people loyal for fear of military tribunals.
Many of the judges in the military court are appointed by the defense ministry, which undermines the judicial independence of the courts, according to rights activists. The head of the military court is usually Shiite, while the chief military prosecutor is a Maronite Christian.
Reforming the Lebanese judicial system is one of the most important demands of anti-government protesters, Raad said, including the completion of military trials for civilians.
On November 13, Jad Al Rayess was fined ,000 200,000 ($ 132) by a military court, 11 months after security forces arrested him in a protest in the Beirut Ring. The court has not yet issued a statement on the charge for which he was convicted.
The 32-year-old said he plans to emigrate from Lebanon.
We will not have any progress without blood and that is nothing I want to get involved in, he said.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.