Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 8-9 Table of Contents
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August-September 2003 

dossier Dossier: Muhamad Mugraby
Lebanese human rights lawyer
by Gary C. Gambill

Muhamad Mugraby
In spite of its rich democratic heritage, pluralist tradition, and cosmopolitan culture, Lebanon is a country where high profile defenders of civil and political rights are in short supply. While most Lebanese are true believers in freedom and democracy and many human rights activists work behind the scenes, few prominent public figures who still remain in the country have been unswerving in their commitment to these ideals.

The harassment faced by human rights defenders in Lebanon is part of the story, but very often it is carrots - not sticks - that lead them astray. One well-known democracy campaigner lost his gusto last year when the government offered him his late uncle's parliamentary seat - after annulling the electoral victory of a prominent government critic. A former secretary-general of the Lebanese Association for the Democracy of Elections (LADE) is today director of the Fares Foundation, an NGO that aggrandizes the "charitable" works of Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares, a wealthy tycoon and close Syrian ally.

The most notable exception to this malaise is Muhamad Mugraby, a Columbia-educated attorney who has worked tirelessly over the past decade to defend victims of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, ranging from the "disappeared" (Lebanese citizens abducted by Syrian intelligence) to dispossessed land owners. In recent years, he has moved beyond reactive measures to defend the rights of citizens against state encroachment and pursued a proactive campaign to expose corruption in the Lebanese judiciary - an institution that he correctly identified as both an institutional pillar and weak link of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

By arresting Mugraby in August, the authorities hoped not only to silence the country's leading human rights campaigner, but also to redraw the lines of what is tolerated in Lebanon today. In this, they may have succeeded. Although international human rights groups sharply condemned Mugraby's imprisonment, Western governments displayed little interest in pressing for his release. Within Lebanon, mainstream opposition figures who routinely condemn arrests of dissidents were unusually silent about his detention - an indication that they are far more interested in negotiating entry into the political system than they are in changing it. While Mugraby was released after three weeks in prison, the muted local and international reaction to his detention is likely encourage future transgressions by the authorities.


Muhamad Mugraby was born to a Sunni Muslim family in Beirut on December 5, 1938. His father, Abdallah, was the owner of a coffee shop and some produce markets. Highly ambitious and independent from an early age, Mugraby held a part-time job writing for the daily Al-Nahar when he was in high school. After completing his secondary education, he studied at the Lebanese University Law School (LLB,1960), where he was valedictorian of his class. During his law studies, Mugraby wrote numerous articles for local newspapers about legal affairs in Lebanon. In one series of articles published in Beirut Al-Masa in 1957, he produced evidence that the public prosecutor of Beirut had protected a high class prostitution ring. Public outrage following the article's publication forced the accused judge to resign.

After earning an MBA from the American University of Beirut in 1962, Mugraby moved to New York to attend Columbia University Law School (JSD, 1966). After graduating from Columbia, he published a groundbreaking book, entitled Permanent Sovereignty Over Oil Resources, A Study of Middle East Oil Concessions and Legal Change, which argued that oil-producing countries must adopt systemic legal reforms in order to replace outmoded petroleum concessionary regimes and introduced innovative ideas, such as "mutual equivalence of contractual advantages."[1] Shortly thereafter, he was hired as a special legal consultant by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to draft uniform laws for its member countries. Libya, which then lacked indigenous experts to manage its oil resources, appointed him advisor to the minister of petroleum in 1967, a position he held for two years. Mugraby's law practice also took him to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Western Europe, and North America. He taught classes at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese University, where he introduced a new class on civil rights. He ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1972.

Mugraby was horrified by the country's bloody disintegration into militia enclaves in the mid-1970s. Like many other secular liberal intellectuals, he refused to call the bloody period from 1975 to 1990 a "civil war," as he believed that the violence was fueled primarily by the presence of Palestinian and Syrian armed forces on Lebanese soil. Mugraby voiced confidence in the late President-Elect Bashir Gemayel for his efforts to reassert Lebanese sovereignty and openly supported the 1989-1990 campaign of Michel Aoun to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon (a courageous position given the fact that he continued to live in Syrian-controlled West Beirut).

Defending the Victims

After Syria defeated Aoun's forces in October 1990 and completed its conquest of Lebanon, Mugraby devoted himself to defending victims of the Syrian occupation. Although his prosperous corporate and commercial law practice in Beirut gave him every incentive to avoid ruffling the feathers of Lebanon's Syrian-backed political elite, he went out of his way to accept cases that few other lawyers in Lebanon were willing to touch. By the mid-1990s, the government had banned unauthorized demonstrations and increasingly relied on military courts to jail civilians for peaceful expression of political dissent. Mugraby represented many such political dissidents. He was also one of the few lawyers in the country willing to vigorously defend those accused of spying for Israel.

In addition, Mugraby defended dozens of Beirut property owners in legal disputes with Solidere, a real estate development company in which Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is the largest shareholder (during Hariri's first tenure as prime minister, the government seized 230 acres of downtown Beirut and handed them to Solidere, which "compensated" property owners at far less than the market value).

His most "untouchable" clients, though, were families of Lebanese citizens illegally held in Syrian prisons. The Syrian and Lebanese governments denied the very existence of the detainees, some of whom had languished in jail since the mid-1970s. In addition to representing relatives of the detainees in their futile attempts to seek redress through the Lebanese legal system, Mugraby painstakingly compiling documentary evidence of the abduction and imprisonment of hundreds of Lebanese citizens by Syrian intelligence. This information was provided to international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Prime Minister Hariri was humiliated during a 1996 speech at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic Studies, when an audience member who had read a Human Rights Watch report on the topic asked him what he planned to do about the detainees (unnerved by the question, he replied that those who believe their relatives are held in Syria sould visit him personally in his office back in Lebanon).

The authorities made several attempts to prosecute Mugraby in the mid-1990s. The first began in September 1994, when the authorities intercepted a fax from Mugraby to Amnesty International describing irregularities in Lebanese military court proceedings. Judicial officials subsequently declared that Mugraby would be indicted on charges of libel. The second case stemmed from legal arguments made by Mugraby in his defense of a client charged with contacting Israelis (although the Penal Code bars contact with enemy soldiers and agents, he argued that there is no formal legal definition of Israel as an enemy under Lebanese law). The third case stemmed from his defense of a property owner in Beirut, who destroyed a makeshift wall erected by Solidere after being informed by Mugraby that the structure was illegal.

Under Lebanese law, however, attorneys cannot be prosecuted without the permission of their bar association. The Beirut Bar Association (BBA) declined to lift Mugraby's immunity on the grounds that his actions directly related to his duties as a lawyer. Another factor that helped shield him from prosecution was the international recognition he had received for his human rights work. In 1997, Human Rights Watch honored Mugraby as one of its "human rights monitors" of the year.

Changing the System

In the late 1990s, Mugraby began devoting more time to proactive campaigning - efforts to mobilize public support for reform of judicial institutions that facilitate human rights abuses. This reflected both his exasperation with judges who repeatedly rule against those seeking redress for violations of their civil liberties and his recognition that the judiciary is the only relevant governing institution that the Lebanese people can pressure from within.

Whereas Damascus quickly replaced Lebanon's senior military officers after 1990 and has handpicked executive office holders in all successive administrations, Syrian control over the judiciary has been less direct (if equally decisive). Because of the extensive training and experience required to be a judge, the pool of qualified jurists in Lebanon could not simply be emptied and refilled with pro-Syrian radicals. As a result, most senior judges are well versed in liberal democratic legal principles and have little or no ideological affinity for Syria's dictatorship. Syrian influence over the judiciary depends first and foremost on institutional corruption - judges who consistently hand down the right verdicts are rewarded with appointments to lucrative positions and various forms of kickbacks. Mugraby recognized that a Western-educated judge can potentially be shamed into respecting the law more easily than a Syrian-trained general or a warlord-turned-politician.

Muhamad Mugraby
In 1999, Mugaby began aggressively campaigning to correct what he called an "integrity crisis" in Lebanon's judicial system. At an October 14 press conference, he accused judges in charge of committees assessing the value of expropriated land of receiving illegal payments from Solidere through the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), a government agency. His campaign to expose corruption in the judicial system escalated in April 2000, when he held a press conference and made a number of specific allegations, backed by documentary evidence, implicating high-ranking judicial officials. He also called for the resignation of Justice Minister Joseph Shawool "for failing to advance and implement new policies aimed at restoring the independence and integrity of the justice system."[2] A week later, he issued a statement saying that the Supreme Judicial Council "does not constitute the independent judicial body required by the constitution."

Claiming that Mugraby was "caught in the act" of defaming the judiciary, Beirut prosecutor Joseph Maamari (whose brother, also a judge, had been accused by Mugraby of taking bribes from Solidere) formally charged him with "libel, defamation and dishonoring of the judicial branch of government."[3] As local media reported that he might be arrested, local lawyers and human rights activists were joined outside the courtroom by representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a show of solidarity.

This time, however, the BBA issued a statement saying that Mugraby's actions did not emanate from his duties as a lawyer, leaving the route open for his prosecution. This decision reflected the displeasure of senior members of the BBA Council, who balked at condoning direct criticism of the Lebanese judiciary. Most members of the board have close ties with influential political figures and the BBA is itself dependent on the state for much of its funding (it receives proceeds from a special tax on all notarized and official contracts in Lebanon).

Mugraby not only challenged the decision in court (the case is evidently still pending), but defiantly broadened his campaign for judicial integrity by targeting the Bar Association. Backed by other reformist attorneys, he filed complaints against the BBA for lacking proper auditing procedures, altering or deleting minutes of general assembly meetings, and signing a medical security contract with a company half-owned by Hariri.

In October 2001, the BBA Council authorized the prosecution of Azzat Shmaisani, a young lawyer practicing in south Lebanon, on charges of slandering three senior judges and a former client, Assad Shaitly, then on trial for rape and drug trafficking. Shmaisani was scheduled to testify in a disciplinary hearing of the Judicial Inspection Bureau that her former client had admitted to bribing the head of the Criminal Court in south Lebanon, Said Mirza, and two other judges to avoid being arrested on the charges. Mugraby openly condemned the BBA Council's willingness to support what was clearly an attempt to intimidate Shmaisani and discredit her testimony.

In April 2002, the president of the BBA convened a closed door hearing of its disciplinary committee, which banned Mugraby from practicing as a lawyer for three years for "harming and questioning the integrity of the judiciary and the credibility of the Beirut Bar Association." The decree sparked outrage among many Lebanese lawyers and Human Rights Watch said it was "deeply troubled by this development." Mugraby appealed the decision through the civil court system, but his appeal was never heard - evidently the authorities realized that this would generate even more bad publicity. In January 2003, the disciplinary council passed a decree permanently expelling Mugraby, who again filed an appeal that the civil courts declined to hear. Much like the government's efforts to prosecute him, the ruling was intended to intimidate Mugraby and hold the threat of further legal action over his head, not bring him to trial. Since Article 553 of the Code of Civil Procedures stipulates that such decrees become final only after the defendant exhausts all means of appeal, Mugraby continued to represent clients in court, while the Bar Association continued to accept his membership dues and register his power of attorney.

Earlier this summer, Mugraby announced that he was running for president of the BBA and began mobilizing support among its members. The government could never allow this to happen. On August 7, two policemen arrived at Mugraby's office and instructed him to come in for questioning. The next day, after four hours of interrogation, he was placed under arrest on charges of "impersonating a lawyer," a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment.

As in the past, international human rights organizations leapt to his defense. "Lebanese authorities have harassed Dr. Mugraby for years, but his arrest today is simply outrageous," said Virginia Sherry, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, adding that "this courageous man must be released immediately."[4] Amnesty International also called for his release.[5] The International Bar Association and the International Committee of Jurists issued similar statements.

Although local human rights groups condemned Mugraby's arrest, the reaction in Lebanon was astonishingly muted. While the silence of political and commercial elites (and the media outlets they control) might have been expected given their stake in the status quo, even mainstream Christian opposition leaders declined to publicly demand his release. While this was partly a reflection of their general reluctance to antagonize the authorities in recent months, it also reflected sectarian considerations - the presidency of the BBA has long been reserved by tradition for Maronite Christians. Mugraby's commitment to the equality of all Lebanese under the law left him precious few friends among those who pay lip service to it.

Mugraby nevertheless remained defiant during his three weeks in prison. "The suspension of my freedom proves to me more than ever that I have been, I am, and I shall continue to be doing the right thing," he wrote in an open letter from his prison cell shortly after his arrest.[6]

Behind the scenes, opposition to Mugraby's imprisonment mounted among his fellow lawyers and a court ordered his release after three weeks in prison. Despite his harrowing experience, Mugraby has no intention of abandoning his struggle for judicial integrity. "I represent the lawyers' hope that the Bar Association will return to its former condition and serve justice by allowing lawyers to act freely under the law," he declared at a recent press conference, adding that "the Bar Association has been transformed into a center for personal influence and interests."[7]


  [1] See Muhamad A. Mughraby, Permanent Sovereignty Over Oil Resources: A Study of Middle East Oil Concessions and Legal Change (Beirut, Lebanon: Middle East Research Center, 1966).
  [2] One case involved a senior judge who obtained an illegal exemption from paying taxes on a recent real estate purchase. Another senior judge, who had been appointed caretaker of certain properties owned by a distant relative who had immigrated to Brazil, received the authority to transfer ownership of the property to his daughter.
  [3] Article 386 of the Penal Code lays down a sentence of up to one year in prison for statements that defame "law courts, organized institutions, the army and public administration or a civil servant who exercises authority in his official capacity."
  [4] Lebanese Lawyer and Rights Activist Arrested, Human Rights Watch, 9 August 2003.
  [5] Lebanon: Dr. al-Mugraby Must Be Immediately Released, Amnesty International, 13 August 2003.
  [6] Claudia Rosett, "An Arab Dissident: Practicing law cost Beirut's Muhammad Mugraby his freedom," The Wall Street Journal, 13 August 2003.
  [7] The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 September 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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