The Lebanese parliament met on Thursday, the 28th of May to discuss several bills, the most highly anticipated being the amnesty law which was postponed indefinitely following high tensions, which led to a lack of consensus.
The bills that the parliament did pass included one to allocate an additional 1,200 billion LBP to the 2020 budget to stimulate the economy, a bill to lift the bank secrecy for public servants like MPs, ministers, municipality employees, and all former and future election candidates, and a bill that specifies the appointment mechanism of high-ranking employees in public offices in an attempt to combat corruption.
An amnesty law is an arrangement that “forgets” past crimes of a large group of people that are usually political in nature. The targeted groups have historically been military and government leaders. Amnesty laws are often part of transitional justice systems to rebuild trust between the people and the state following periods of political and civil unrest. If this bill passes, it would not be the first time an amnesty law is passed in Lebanon. In 1991, following 15 years of civil war, the Lebanese Government issued an amnesty law pardoning political crimes committed in that time. Some crimes covered by the amnesty law were abductions and hostage-taking which, as revealed by the official statistics published in 1992, amounted to 17,415 missing persons. One consequence of the amnesty pardon of 1991 was that it allowed war criminals to walk free of their crimes and assume public offices to this day. This provided the people with neither justice nor reconciliation, and left victims of the war at the mercy of warlords yet again -but now, constitutionally.
Controversy surrounding the current-day amnesty law proposal is plenty. On Thursday morning, protestors gathered around the UNESCO palace where the meeting was to be held to voice their rejection of one aspect of the bill, which would allow ex-collaborators with and agents to the Israeli state who fled to Occupied Palestine following the liberation of South Lebanon to return to Lebanon. In the southern city of Saida, citizens burned the Israeli flag and set up symbolic gallows to demonstrate “the fate of Israeli agents who fled execution.”
The provision to pardon the crime of gaining Israeli citizenship is heavily supported by most Christian party MPs like the Free Patriotic Movement, Kataeb, and Lebanese Forces. Hezbollah and Amal Movement MPs seem to agree to pardon the crime of entering Israel, but outrightly reject pardoning conspiration with the enemy and gaining Israeli citizenship. The latter two parties are in favor of pardoning crimes like kidnappings and drug trafficking and abuse. On the other hand, Sunni MPs like those of the Future Movement, who stormed out of the second session, want to include Islamists held under suspicion of terrorist involvement in the amnesty law. According to this narrative, each respective party is pushing for provisions that will pardon crimes that most affect their sect. Naturally, this begs the question, why?
Not every conspirator with the Israeli government and member of the Israeli-alligned South Lebanon Army is Christian, just like not every drug trafficker in the country is Shiaa Muslim. However, the fact that politicians are pushing this simplified narrative shows that they have a lot to gain from the law being passed. Once again, the leaders of sectarian parties will save the citizens belonging to their sect and, as the tale goes, they should be eternally grateful. The end result is a larger population that can vote for this very same savior that has now effectively grown his clientele base, and thus gained back any power he had lost since October 2019.
It is also interesting to note here that the call to grant the Lebanese citizenship to Israeli collaborators (after they abandon their Israeli citizenship) might raise some eyebrows as to what level of criteria is measured in this endeavor. Until today, Lebanese women have not been given the right to pass down their citizenship to their children, Palestinians that have been residing and working in Lebanon for decades have not been given the right to Lebanese citizenship,and Syrians that permanently moved to Lebanon and had been granted residency since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 have not been given the right to citizenship. What message is the Lebanese government emitting here? That the rights of those that collaborated with the state that destroyed and obliterated so much of this country are more important than those of Lebanese women, Palestinians, and Syrians? This is beyond the fact that the return of those collaborators can be seen as disrespectful to the thousands of lives lost during the civil war and Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.
Another thing that the politicians are set to gain from passing the amnesty law is the pardoning of crimes related to corruption that they have committed, including the looting of public funds and lands. Both drafts of the amnesty law that were submitted -one by Yassine Jaber and Michel Moussa and the other by Bahia El Hariri -implicitly target people that have not yet been prosecuted for their crimes.
A large problem in prison facilities in Lebanon is the overcrowding in them. This issue was highlighted by the Lebanese Order of Physicians amidst growing worries surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and a possible outbreak in prisons. Amnesty were told by Heba Al-Mawla, the wife of a prisoner, that the only measure taken to protect prisoners against an outbreak of the virus was to gather all the inmates and spray them with water and disinfectant (Dettol). The question remains if an amnesty law is the only effective solution for this overcrowding.
To answer that, it makes sense to first dissect the reasons for this overcrowding. One of the largest contributors to overcrowding in prisons and detention centers is the fact that more than 50% of those in these facilities are detainees who have not yet been tried for their alleged crimes. Additionally, there are people who have served their sentences but remain in prisons “because they are unable to pay their fines or secure release warrants,” according to Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.
On April 2nd, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a plan to release almost 3,000 people held in pre-trial detention, and on April 6th, Minister of Interior, Mohamad Fahmi announced that 606 detainees have been released. The issue of detainees being held in prisons is a pressing one since some can be held for more than a decade while awaiting trial. The ways this issue could be solved is by adopting internationally recognized measures like house arrest or security bracelets and by being more efficient in trials. Efficiency in trials and a swift service of justice is not too easy in a currently severely understaffed judicial system.
When it comes to the judiciary, an amnesty law poses a threat to its very purpose. An amnesty law would weaken accountability at the highest level and encourage impunity. The sections of the proposed bills are purposefully vague with ambiguous formulations that make it extremely difficult to scrutinize what crime falls under the law and what doesn’t. Examples of this include environmental crimes, maritime property infringement, and looting of public funds that would absolve major corporations and politicians of crimes they have committed. The proposed alternatives to an amnesty law are easily implementable without threatening accountability and the rule of law, which would rebuild trust in the Lebanese judiciary.
Another alternative that could be adopted to reduce overcrowding is assigning people community service for crimes that could land them up to a year in jail. This would save hundreds of people from being subjected to the conditions in Lebanese prisons for crimes committed with no criminal intent. There are also committees for reducing sentences (لجان تخفيف العقوبات) that study sentences on a cases-by-case basis to determine if a prisoner can finish their sentence earlier. This happens often and crimes covered include drug pushing or dealing (but not trafficking).
While there are many people in Lebanese jails who have been victims of outdated laws and procedures which must change, politicians have the most to win by passing an amnesty law since they will not be held accountable for crimes they have committed and will continue to commit. While we cannot invalidate the concerns of families who have loved ones in prisons, it is important to be critical of the amnesty law ploy.