BEIRUT (AP) — Khaldoun Jaber was taking part in an anti-government protest near the presidential palace outside Beirut last November when several Lebanese intelligence officers in plainclothes approached and forcibly took him away.
The demonstration was part of a wave of protests sweeping Lebanon against corruption and misrule by a group of politicians who have monopolized power since the country’s civil war ended three decades ago.
Jaber didn’t know it then, but Lebanese security forces targeted him because of his social media posts criticizing President Michel Aoun. What followed were 48 harrowing hours of detention during which security officers interrogated him and subjected him to physical abuse, before letting him go.
“I was beaten, harmed psychologically and morally,” Jaber said. “Three of my teeth were broken and I lost 70% of my hearing in my left ear.”
“I am still traumatized,” he added.
A year after mass protests roiled Lebanon, dozens of protesters are being tried before military courts, proceedings that human rights lawyers say grossly 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 prop up Lebanon’s sectarian rulers.
Around 90 civilians have been referred to the military justice system so far, according to Legal Agenda, a human rights group based in Beirut.
“We expect many more people to be prosecuted,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the group.
The trials underscore the growing perils of activism in Lebanon, where a string of court cases and judicial investigations against journalists and critics has eroded the country's reputation for free speech and tolerance in a largely autocratic Arab world.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm did not respond to a request for comment. Lebanese officials typically do not address the question of why civilian cases are being tried in the military court system. Security forces have denied beating and torturing protesters and activists in detention.
Frangieh said that security forces arrested around 1,200 people from the beginning of the anti-government uprising in October 2019 through the end of June. Lebanese authorities have prosecuted around 200 of them, including those referred to the military judiciary, the monitoring group has found.
Two months after his arrest, Jaber received an official notice saying military prosecutors were charging him with assaulting security forces at the Baabda Palace when the plainclothes agents detained him.
“I was shocked when I was called to the military tribunal,” Jaber said.
The trial did not take place until Oct. 7, when the military court declared Jaber innocent of assaulting security officers, which is a military crime under Lebanese law, but said it lacked jurisdiction over a second charge, that of insulting the president.
Like Jaber, many detained protesters only find out a month or more 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 lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic temporarily closed the courts.
Jaber’s case is an example of how military prosecutors try to claim jurisdiction over civilian cases by usually filing more than one charge, including one that is a military crime, said Frangieh, who represents protesters before the military tribunal and is also part of the Lawyers’ Committee for Defense of Protesters.
“There was no evidence,” Frangieh said about Jaber's charge of assaulting security officers. “He was kidnapped during a protest, but he was actually targeted because of his social media posts that criticized the president.”
The military prosecutor’s office closed, without investigation, a torture complaint that Jaber had submitted, she added.
According to Legal Agenda, the military courts usually issue summary decisions on the same day of the trial, without issuing an explanation.
“There’s really a lot of doubt about the fairness and arbitrariness of the decisions issued by the court,” she said, adding that when defendants are sentenced, the legal basis of the conviction is not immediately shared with their lawyers.
Military prosecutors often neglect to read the full case files prepared from military intelligence reports, or abruptly drop or change charges during trials, according to Frangieh and another lawyer with the committee representing protesters, Ayman Raad.
“Military courts have no business trying civilians,” said Aya Majzoub, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. The international rights group has called on Lebanon's parliament to end the troubling practice by passing a law to entirely remove civilians from the military court's jurisdiction.
Georges Abou Fadel was summoned for a military trial on Oct. 30, after he was detained during a protest a year ago in the town 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 lesser charge of nonviolently resisting arrest.
The court found him innocent but Abou Fadel said he wasn’t relieved, knowing there’ll be more trials “for my friends, for the people protesting, for anyone who is trying to call for his rights.”
Lawyers, rights activists and defendants describe the military tribunals' prosecution of protesters and other civilians as another node in the web of Lebanon's sectarian system that protects the power of its top politicians rather than the rights of citizens.
“This is one of the tools used by the sectarian parties," said Abou Fadel — keeping their people loyal through fear of the military courts.
Many of the judges at the military tribunal are appointed by the defense ministry, which undermines the tribunal’s judicial independence, according to rights activists. The head of the military tribunal is customarily Shiite, while the chief military prosecutor is Maronite Christian.
Reforming the Lebanese judicial system is “one of the most important demands” of the anti-government protesters, Raad said, including ending military trials for civilians.
On Nov. 13, Jad Al Rayess was fined 200,000 Lebanese Pounds ($132) by a military court, 11 months after security forces detained him at a protest on Beirut’s Ring Road. The court has not yet released a statement with the charge for which he was convicted.
The 32-year-old said that he plans to emigrate from Lebanon.
“We are not going to get any progress without blood, and that’s nothing I want to be involved in,” he said.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.