Muhammad Mugraby is an international lawyer and human rights advocate based in Beirut. He received a doctorate in the Science of Law from Columbia Law School and is a vice-president of the defense commission of the International Association of Lawyers, Paris. In November 1997 he received a Human Rights Award for the Middle East from Human Rights Watch.
Lebanon today is experiencing a strange development. At a time when the global trend is unmistakably in the direction of increased personal freedom and political participation, it is going in precisely the opposite direction. Once a free, democratic country, it is being transformed into a Soviet-style satellite by its neighbor, Syria. The agony of human rights in Lebanon mainly stems from the export of the Syrian model of human, or rather inhuman rights, directly through the Syrian army and mukhabarat (intelligence services) and indirectly via the Lebanese government, appointees of Damascus. Human rights in Lebanon have also suffered from the importation of the Saudi model in the person in of Rafiq al-Hariri, the billionaire head of a Saudi-based business empire whom the Syrians appointed as prime minister.
In the following comments I propose to shed some light on the magnitude of the tragedy that plagues Lebanon.
Lebanon has across the ages made some truly significant contributions to human civilization, and specifically to the growth of freedom. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, introduced the institution of the senate, and by the tenth century b.c. had developed written constitutions that Aristotle cited as models for all states.
In Biblical times, tradition has it that Jesus brought his message of peace to Lebanon and performed some of his most famous miracles in the presence of the Virgin Mary at the southern town of Qana. In Roman times, the first law school in history, established by the Phoenicians, was located in Beirut. By a.d. 196 it had a depository of written constitutions where the oldest constitutions of the Roman Empire were safeguarded. Jurists at the Beirut law school in the fifth century a.d. drafted the Justinian Code, the first predecessor of modern civil law. For this, Beirut came to be known as the "Mother of Laws" (Berytus nutrix legum).
Imam Al-Awza‘i (d. 774), one of the great Sunni theologians and long a resident of Beirut, was an early advocate of human rights who famously took a stand against the persecution of Christians by the ‘Abbasid caliphs' governors in Damascus. In the medieval period, Lebanon provided a place of refuge for the persecuted of many faiths. Maronite monks escaped the official church in Byzantium to the safety of the Bikaa Valley and Mount Lebanon. Shi‘is escaped the wrath of Umayyad Caliphs. Druze fled ill-treatment by the Fatimids of Egypt, a Shi‘i dynasty, and found they could freely practice their religion in the mountains of Lebanon.
In modern times, Lebanon played a central role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights through its chief United Nations representative, Charles Malik. In partnership with Eleanor Roosevelt, he was the prime force behind drafting the declaration and pushing it through the various U.N. committees to final conclusion.
This distinguished heritage with its many contributions to humanity makes Lebanon's current human rights crisis all the more striking and dismaying.
Lebanon gained full independence in 1943 and Syria followed suit in 1946, both wrested from France. Starting in 1949, with the first of many military coups in Syria, the two neighbors drifted apart. Lebanon continued to function democratically and, unlike Syria, followed liberal policies in the economic, monetary and educational fields. The arrival in the late sixties of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian organizations offered a golden opportunity for Syria's rulers to openly interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs. In 1976, just as the Palestinians came close, with Syrian help, to taking control of Lebanon the Syrian army invaded the country and put them under its leash. In the years 1976-82, the Syrians and Palestinians shared military control of Lebanon, which in turn opened the way to a lesser Israeli invasion in 1978 and larger one in 1982, resulting in the expulsion of the Syrian Army and the PLO from Beirut. Syrian troops took advantage of a political crisis in September 1988 to interfere in force. Conflict soon erupted between the Lebanese and Syrian armies which the Iraqis and Israelis exacerbated. Damascus finally attained almost total control of Lebanon on October 13, 1990, when Syrian soldiers marched into the ruins of the Lebanese presidential palace at Ba‘abda.
Since then, the Syrian regime has run Lebanon as a wholly owned subsidiary. This can be seen in many small signs. Official Syrian holidays, such as the one commemorating Asad's "Correctional Movement," are celebrated in Lebanon as in Syria. Pictures of Hafiz al-Asad and his sons, Bashshar and the late Basil, greet passengers at the Beirut airport much as they do at the Damascus airport. Lebanese newspapers and media carry no criticism whatsoever of Syrian policies, either explicitly or implicitly. Asad's mukhabarat chief in Beirut openly sits in on the televised meetings of the Central Security Council.
Syrian dominion can also be seen at the highest level: every government decision of any significance, including all appointments and spending priorities, must first be cleared in Damascus—as shown by the fact that the Lebanese leaders frequently and openly travel to Damascus for "consultations" with their Syrian handlers. When Damascus wanted the Lebanese parliament to elect Elias Hrawi as president in 1989, Syrian military and mukhabarat officers herded the parliamentarians to the meeting in a town it dominated and had him duly elected. When the Syrians in 1995 decided to ignore the constitutional limit of a single presidential term, they simply told the parliament to support an amendment that would extend his time in office by three years. Rafiq al-Hariri, a businessman of Lebanese origins who had resided all his adult life in Saudi Arabia and had renounced his Lebanese citizenship (a prerequisite to acquire Saudi nationality, which permits a person to own property and engage in business activities without a Saudi sponsor), someone completely lacking political credentials in Lebanon, was one fine day declared, at the behest of Damascus, parliament's favorite candidate for prime minister.
One of the more subtle Syrian tactics has been to adopt wholesale the confessional system, plus the corrupt political bosses who went with it, both of which were on the road to extinction. A troika made up of one Maronite (Hrawi), one Shi‘i (Nabih Birri), and one Sunni (Hariri) exercises power nearly independent of the cabinet and the parliament. Each of them must approve all civil service appointments and promotions of those persons belonging to his own religious community. The cabinet includes several ministers who were militia leaders and are suspected of having committed gross human rights violations. The ministers of natural resources and power (Eli Hubayka) and refugees (Walid Jumblat), are widely accused of having had direct roles in mass killings; the minister of labor (As‘ad Hardan) is suspected of masterminding many assassinations and car bombings for his Syrian masters.
Syrian management has led to many detrimental consequences for Lebanon. We look here at four of them: a ruined economy, a corrupted government, an eviscerated rule of law, and a miserable human rights situation.
I. THE ECONOMY
No reliable statistics are available because the Lebanese government is either negligent or fears the consequences of their public revelation. This said, the real per capita income may be as little as one quarter of what it was in 1974. More Lebanese children are underfed, underclothed, and under-educated than at any time in modern Lebanese history. Until 1986, it took just three Lebanese pounds to purchase a U.S. dollar. By September 1988, a dollar cost 350 Lebanese pounds and 465 in January 1990. The rate reached 1,000 later that year and stands today, even with heavy support from Lebanon's central bank, at a huge economic cost to the country, at 1,525. If permitted freely to float, the Lebanese pound could slip to as low as 5,000 to the dollar. Inflation is even worse. A falafel sandwich went up four thousand times, from a quarter pound in 1974 to 1000 today. Likewise, a small apartment rented then for 100 pounds per month rents now for 400,000. In contrast, job earnings have gone up less than one thousand times.
Part of the economic problem results from the hundreds of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled Syrian workers who constitute a human flood pouring over the border and ask for just one quarter to one half what a Lebanese accepts, creating a classical problem of labor over-supply. Conversely, an outflow of capital and skills accompanied the hundreds of thousands of emigrants that left the country and are not returning due to the continued Syrian control. Many of them are highly trained professionals whose absence strikes a significant blow against the economy. The destruction of capital assets and the loss of foreign markets to Lebanese products have also hurt.
State spending has soared as large numbers of political appointees such as former militia members joined the payroll, leading to an astronomical deficit of 60 percent of the budgeted spending and 75 percent of actual total spending. The country's public debt on December 31, 1997, is estimated at approximately $17 billion, almost three times the (estimated) gross national product. The government finances this deficit with high-yield treasury bonds that pay annual rates exceeding 20 percent. Most of the public debt, nearly $15 billion, is domestic and denominated in Lebanese currency, but as local sources are rapidly dwindling, the government started borrowing on the international market in foreign currencies.
Remittances from income earned outside Lebanon by non-resident Lebanese with foreign commercial activities, employment, or other means continue to flow in in the billions of dollars, but that has not been enough of a cushion to prevent the Lebanese economy from experiencing a disastrous decline, particularly as the inflow is largely offset by the outflow of remittances by the Syrian workers. Finally, as the government desperately tries to raise money to finance its spending, the burden of taxation, mostly indirect, is becoming heavier and heavier on the Lebanese, discouraging business activity.
II. CORRUPTION IN HIGH PLACES
Corruption begins right at the top; many cabinet ministers are construction contractors and almost all are millionaires with questionable sources for their wealth. There is no rule or concept of conflict of interest and most high officials are CEOs and general managers of their own companies. Take the prime minister himself, Rafiq al-Hariri—a billionaire who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, received all his practical education and experience in life there, and still runs a business empire there as well as in Lebanon. His appointment to the top position has greatly intensified government mismanagement and corruption, for with him came the Saudi culture of corruption, conflict of interest, waste of resources, and disregard for the rule of law. If Saudi Arabia can afford these indulgences from its vast oil income, Lebanon cannot, except by a huge public debt and a steep rise in taxes.
Worse, Hariri has not disassociated himself from his vast commercial interests, so his companies actively compete with smaller Lebanese companies. To make his position yet more lucrative, he is not just prime minister but also minister of finance and telecommunications. One of his many real estate projects, Solidère, received an unconstitutional and unconscionable concession over the entire old city of Beirut (ironically, the location of the long-ago Beirut law school). Rights of owners and tenants were confiscated with meager compensation in the form of Solidère shares that can never be sold. Solidère's management had at its disposal a large police force with which to evict owners and residents if necessary. An elderly lady whom I represented, Audette Manassa, was forcibly taken to a police station while her house was demolished; she instantly fell ill and a few weeks later died. A dozen residents of an old house, men, women, and children, slow to obey an eviction order, died when Solidère's contractors proceeded, without warning, to demolish their residence even as the residents were in it.
III. THE RULE OF LAW IN ECLIPSE
The judiciary has suffered from the Syrian occupation, which snuffed out what had remained of its independence. Syrian fingers became apparent in appointments of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates. When two senior judges gave a lavish dinner in honor of Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Tallas and turned to a well-known suspected drug trafficker, Yusuf Hamiya, to finance it, the third-highest ranking judge and the head of the Judicial Inspection Bureau (Hayat at-Taftish al-Qada'i) ‘Abd al-Basit Ghandur, brought disciplinary charges against the two judges. Syrian forces promptly surrounded Ghandur's Ras Beirut home; Syrian officers attempted to take him by force for interrogation by the commander of the Syrian mukhabarat in Beirut. Judge Ghandur courageously resisted. The neighbors rapidly became aware of what was going on and word spread. Ghandur finally was able to use his phone to call President Hrawi and the Syrians withdrew. In a sharply divided vote, a disciplinary council subsequently tried the two judges who hosted the dinner and cleared them of the charges. The following year, Ghandur retired. Munif ‘Uwaydat, a judge who defended the two Tallas hosts, almost immediately thereafter became the top prosecutor general of the country.
To create a Lebanese equivalent to the Syrian special security courts, the Military Court in the Ministry of Defense, an old and established institution, was tasked. The calendar of that court suddenly swelled beginning in 1993 and its case load rose from nearly three thousand cases a year to over twenty thousand. The Military Court is supposed to observe the standard rules of criminal procedure but no longer does so. Its judges consist mostly of military officers with no legal education or training. The prosecutor dominates the system and actually administers the court; for example, all the clerks report to him. An average case takes only minutes to try; defense lawyers have little or no role to play. A typical day might see 120 cases on the court's calendar in the morning and final verdicts for 80 of them are provided the same evening.
Torture prevails, mostly prior to the transfer of the prisoners to the custody of the court. The court almost always relies upon a primary investigation conducted by army intelligence or another intelligence service, often with an unofficial Syrian presence. Torture continues during interrogation until the detainee agrees to sign a written confession largely prepared by the interrogators. Such a confession is always admitted and made the basis for the court's verdict; the military court never considers well-documented evidence of torture in medical reports and X-rays. Further, the general assembly of the court of cassation has ruled itself without competence over the military justice system. Ironically, one of the most notorious officers in charge of interrogation, Col. ‘Imad Kakur, is married to the niece of justice minister Bahij Tabbara. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, TORTURE and the Fédération Internationale de Droit de L'Homme, among others, have prepared reports on torture and the activities of the military court.1
When cases of special interest to the Syrians arise, the Syrians themselves take charge. In many cases the prisoners are apprehended by the Lebanese security forces who then deliver them to the Syrians. Then, without so much as asking permission of the Lebanese judicial authorities, the Syrian mukhabarat transfer detainees to Syria for interrogation and internment. In most such cases they then simply disappear, as the Syrians refuse either to account for detainees or permit family contact with them.
THE EROSION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The next target was what remained of the freedom of expression. An unconstitutional law dating from 1954 prohibited the publication of new newspapers, whether daily or weekly, unless the applicant first purchased two existing newspaper licenses and agreed to have them revoked. The large number of publications cushioned the impact of this law but over the years many publications went out of business without new ones appearing, to the point that all eleven daily papers published in Beirut today (including three in English and French) began existence before 1974. This legislation did not, however, apply to the electronic media, so radio and television stations proliferated in the 1980s. To plug this hole, a new statute in 1994 restricted television and radio stations; banned stations were closed down by force.2 One of the latest forcible shutdowns took place in Tripoli in September 1997, when the security forces killed two innocent people and wounded eight.3 Stations controlled by political leaders, however, were exempted, such as Future TV, owned by Prime Minister Hariri, and NBN, controlled by speaker of the House Nabih Birri and Minister of National Economy Yasin Jabir. (Most ministers, in fact, are also active in business as chairmen and CEOs of their own companies.)
Freedom of assembly and association have suffered badly. A 1993 cabinet decree banned all demonstrations. Forming a non-governmental association requires a decree by the minister of the interior and he routinely disallows any association with founders or aims or members not agreeable to the government or to the Syrians. The current minister, Michel Murr (who is also vice premier and a very wealthy real estate developer and contractor), openly and vocally despises human rights, proclaiming security more valuable than "the rights they speak about."4
Individual lawyers are threatened with prosecution for acts that fall well within their obligation to defend clients. By law, they enjoy immunity from prosecution for acts falling within their role as defenders, but the immunity can be lifted through special procedures. As a practicing lawyer, I succeeded in July 1997 to defeat one attempt by the government to have my immunity lifted, assisted by the uproar it caused in the international human rights community,5 and am fighting two more such attempts.6 The cases concern my defense of prisoners of conscience before the military court and my representing property owners and tenants threatened by one of the prime minister's real estate companies, Solidère. Lawyers who dare criticize the legal system are declared libelous; both the Beirut prosecutor and the country's general prosecutor have publicly warned that they will not tolerate such criticism.7
The Bar Association, a self-governing organization that wields considerable power by statute over the legal profession, is one of the remaining institutions that constitute a potential threat to the Syrian-installed Lebanese regime. Hence the government interferes covertly in the association's annual meetings and the election of its council. It also takes steps to co-opt lawyers. The bar is the beneficiary of a special tax on all notarized and other official contracts equal to one per mill of the declared value thereof; the bar also collects a special tax on all powers of attorney. When the prime minister was invited in October 1997 to preside over the ground-breaking ceremony for a lawyers' club on public property, he not only attended but he announced a contribution of $400,000 of public money to help in its construction costs.8 All this income, which amounts to millions of dollars per annum, seriously compromises the independence of the bar which cannot risk a confrontation with the government for fear of losing vital sources of support.
The illegal militias, holdovers from the civil war era and without exception the possessors of terrible human rights records, were officially supposed to be dissolved and their members absorbed into the army, police, and civil service, pursuant to the formula agreed on in the Ta'if accord. The absorption took place but the militias were not dissolved, with one minor exception. Nabih Birri, speaker of the house and one of the country's top three politicians, continues to lead his own armed militia, Amal, under the pretext of its waging armed resistance against Israel. Hizbullah's militia has evolved under joint Syrian-Iranian sponsorship into a large, heavily armed private army with its own jails and detainees, officially recognized by the government. To make matters more surreal, many Lebanese have been charged before the Military Court with "spying" on Hizbullah, then tried, convicted and sentenced to prison on such charges!
The continued existence of the militias, even after their presumed disappearance, serves another purpose: to anyone who calls for the evacuation of Syrian forces, the reply quickly comes that were the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon the militias would be instantly back on the streets, making everyone's life much more miserable. Some militias (such as the Jumblat-controlled "Popular Army") exhibit no visible signs of life but remain extant, prepared to return to business on the first signal from Damascus. Damascus needs this lever, for it has stated a willingness to withdraw when the Lebanese government so requests. But there's no danger of that happening any time soon; in fact, one minister, Michel Eddé, expressed the views of his loyalist colleagues when he publicly threatened to throw himself before the first Syrian tank that begins such withdrawal!9 In this way, maintaining the Syrian military occupation has become an integral part of the declared program of many Lebanese politicians.
The corruption of the institutions of civil society is in full swing. Beirut is no longer the mother of laws but the victim of gross abuse of rights.
CONFRONTING THE WIZARD
The Lebanese people have been reduced to helpless hostages of a foreign tyranny, one dedicated to using their land as a pawn in an endless struggle with rival powers. Indeed, Syria, Iran and Israel, all of them much stronger militarily than Lebanon, have found Lebanon a convenient place to settle scores. From my residence in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean, I have a good view of the coastal town of Na'me about ten miles south of the city, where the Syrians have unlawfully sanctioned the establishment of a base for a Palestinian armed group, one of a score of such foreign armed groups they sponsor. In plain view from my balcony I can regularly see Israeli planes unlawfully violate Lebanese air space to raid the base at Na'me. Israeli planes also regularly violate Lebanese air space in the Bikaa Valley and in the south, raiding suspected bases of Hizbullah, that joint Iranian-Syrian subsidiary. If the Israelis and Syrians can accept this arrangement, the Lebanese cannot, for they pay the price.
The Israeli government for some years now has often publicly expressed a serious readiness to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon, on condition that Damascus assure it a quiet border. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made this the centerpiece of his "Lebanon First" initiative of August 1996 and the Israeli defense minister recently proposed this again, a theme the visiting French foreign minister picked up. The Syrian government, however, has not been willing to give such an assurance, and has thereby effectively nixed an Israeli withdrawal. Bizarre as it sounds, Syria's leaders, not those of Israel, object to Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Most Lebanese, regardless of religion, believe the Syrian position to be motivated by two objectives: the wish to maintain Lebanon as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis Israel and the evident preference to maintain Syrian soldiers in Lebanon. On the second point: Lebanon represents a valuable prize for Damascus and a source of large and vital income in precious dollars, and it hardly relishes an Israeli withdrawal because that would imply its need to withdraw troops, as promised in the Ta'if agreement way back in 1989.10
This sad state of affairs calls for a stand by the Lebanese people, who must demonstrate their will to resist the tyranny and to defend their human rights against all forms of abuse. They should do so in every way possible, and especially by utilizing what remains of the legal process.
In addition, the powers also have a role to play, to make sure that the erosion in human rights in Lebanon is halted and ultimately reversed. The Western democracies seem to have accepted this sorry state of affairs and now carry on with business-as-usual in Beirut, uninterested either in challenging the Syrian occupation or seriously improving matters on the ground. In this regard, the role of the U.S. government mystifies most Lebanese, many of whom believe that Hafiz al-Asad would never have dared to do what he has done in their country without American acquiescence. American diplomacy continues to offer unwarranted tolerance to the Syrian occupation in Lebanon and inexplicably support such Syrian cronies as Hariri, his cabinet, and all their hangers-on.
During a brief visit to Beirut in September 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made public comments that were most encouraging. First, she asserted that "What happens in Lebanon matters a great deal to the American people," then endorsed a Lebanon that is "fully independent, unified and sovereign, free from all foreign forces, whose citizens are able to go about their daily business consistent with the Lebanese traditions of free speech, religious tolerance and respect for the rule of law."11 The words were superb; unfortunately, the secretary of state's very presence in Lebanon implicitly endorsed Hariri's regime and the Syrian-controlled behind it.12
The U.S. government appears to be pursuing in Lebanon a policy of engagement that brings to mind its policy towards the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe during the cold war. But Damascus is not Moscow and Beirut is not Warsaw. Asad, although a dictator in his own right, is less a great wizard than a Wizard of Oz,13 a street-smart tough and a pragmatist (as he showed when he sided with the international coalition against Iraq in 1990-91). He seeks both acceptance from the West and looks to it for protection against a possible Israeli, and perhaps Turkish, attack.
Washington has helped Asad for too long to play this role in his confrontation with Turkey and Israel and in his Lebanon adventure. For Washington to weigh on Asad's side so far as Israel is concerned makes sense within the context of regional politics and the imperatives of the peace process. But to tolerate his continued role in Lebanon is different and even immoral. American and European officials should tell Asad that his reign as Wizard of Oz is over, at least in Lebanon; that his expectations from the West cannot be fulfilled unless he promptly packs up and leaves Lebanese territory. If he does not, he will find himself in the same seclusion as Saddam Husayn of Iraq and Mu‘ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya. He should withdraw Syrian forces on the heels of a preceding Israeli withdrawal. A new and independent government could then democratically be installed in Beirut, with no participation from Asad's cronies or other gang-leaders. It could then proceed, with full recognition of the rule of law and respect for human rights, to put the nation back together.
1 For example, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report in May 1997 titled "Syria/Lebanon: An Alliance Beyond the Law: Enforced Disappearances in Lebanon." Amnesty International published an equally detailed report in October, 1997.
2 On this issue, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Lebanon: Restrictions on Broadcasting," Apr. 1997.
3 An-Nahar, Sept. 22, 1997.
4 An-Nahar, Oct. 30, 1997.
5 In an unprecedented joint statement dated July 4, 1997, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Fédération Internationale de Droit de L'Homme, and the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights supported me in the form of an open letter to Prime Minister Hariri; the Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers sent a similar statement on the same date to President Hirawi. See an-Nahar and L'Orient Le Jour, July 7, 1997.
6 These new cases resemble a prior effort by the government of Lebanon to go after me. I was twice summoned for questioning by an assistant military prosecutor in 1994 (on Oct. 10 and Oct. 20) but refused to comply. The military prosecutor then moved to have my immunity lifted but did not press the matter to the court of appeal. It is not clear how far the state will take the case in the two pending cases.
7 An-Nahar, Oct. 2, 1997.
8 An-Nahar, Oct. 24, 1997.
9 An-Nahar, Feb. 3, 1995.
10 On the other hand, elite circles in Syria, interestingly, have been exposed via the occupation of Lebanon, to the delights of Western culture and now crave it. This could have major implications in the future.
11 Remarks at the Beirut Forum, Sept. 15, 1997, as published on the State Department's Internet site, http://www.state.gov, Aug. 29, 1997.
12 For decades, high-level American diplomats for this reason refused to step foot in the Soviet-occupied territories of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; similarly, these days, they stay away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Chinese-occupied Tibet.
13 The Wizard of Oz, his cover blown and his magical abilities unmasked, pleads with Dorothy and her companions in the L. Frank Baum classic: "No one knows it but you four and myself . . . I have fooled everyone so long that I thought I should never be found out. It was a great mistake my ever letting you into the Throne Room. Usually I will not see even my subjects, and so they believe I am something terrible.