Lebanon’s judicial system is subjected to endless assaults from government officials and political parties that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of impunity over the rule of law. Due to ill-defined exceptions in the legal code, judges are limited in their abilities to call ministers for questioning. Manipulations of this exclusion principle is one of many examples of corruption in the judicial process. A perfect case of the disregard for the law is when a Lebanese judge ordered Central Bank governor Riad Salameh to attend a court hearing for questions on his alleged misconduct, The subpoena was issued by Judge Ghada Aoun on February 1 and Lebanese security were not able to locate him at his home or office. Salameh denied any wrongdoing, declaring his innocence and has refused to hand himself over to the courts.
On March 18, authorities arrested his younger brother, Raja Salameh, who is accused along with Riad of embezzling public and private funds, money laundering to illegally enrich themselves at the outset of the 2019 financial crisis. Sources reported Raja is currently being detained in the Baabda area, east of Beirut. This would require Judge Aoun to transfer her investigation to Judge Nicolas Mansour who oversees the district of Mount Lebanon. But the chase for answers from Salameh is not the only problem the judicial system is facing in Lebanon.
Unfortunately, instead of defending the judiciary, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday that the course of action by some judges was increasing tensions in Lebanon. His statement, regardless of intent, undermines the legitimacy of the court’s actions and risks enabling corruption.
Mikati did, however, conclude a meeting with Lebanon’s justice minister Henry Khoury, agreeing to request the Mount Lebanon public prosecutor to take appropriate measures on the matter. There was also talk of restoring the rights of depositors in the commercial banks which the Central Bank regulates..
It has been almost two years since the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port that had taken the lives of more than 200 people and 6,500 wounded. Billions of dollars’ in property damage was also inflicted on the society. This exacerbated the existing economic declines, and depositors faced even more severe monetary erosion as a result of the widening financial meltdown, making it nearly impossible to rebuild some semblance of normalcy. People wanted to know why this could happen and what is being done to unearth the answers.
The Lebanese courts are fighting to give the people the truth on who is responsible for storing 2,750 tons of Ammonium Nitrate (AN), the cause of the blast. Judge Tarek Bitar, a dedicated legal servant, is giving the Lebanese hope in the domestic judiciary as Aya Majzoub, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told Al Jazeera. Indeed, his willingness to call on witnesses from the elite such as former Ministers Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, and Nohad al-Mashnouk has rattled the fragile cages of the once perceived immunity these influential political figures possess. He is setting a precedent that a majority of Lebanese are not used to seeing, that of politicians being treated as if they are under the law and not above it.
Both are senior members of the Shia political party called Amal, an ally of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, party which is designated by the United States government as a terrorist organization. When they refused to follow the summons for questioning on the charges of criminal negligence, the rest of Lebanon had to pay a price.
In October of 2021, both Amal and Hezbollah organized rallies in anger to protest Bitar’s continued appointment as head of the Beirut blast investigation. Thousands of their supporters marched on the Palace of Justice in Tayouneh, a Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Reports consumed the airwaves saying supporters of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party fired upon the Hezbollah-Amal demonstrators with sniper rifles. It triggered a firefight with heavy weapons leaving 7 lives lost and a nation once again in dread and mourning. People were outraged and in a state of fear. Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah blamed the deaths on Samir Geagea, the leader of the LF. Geagea denied giving orders to fire on the demonstrators and blamed Hezbollah’s incitement against Judge Bitar. Geagea was summoned by instructions of army intelligence to make a statement based on information provided by LF members who were arrested following the killings. He responded in a television interview that he would happily give a statement to the military court if they “listen to Nasrallah” first..
One should remind him this is not how the law works. Understandably, many Lebanese are frustrated with Hezbollah and its allies’ ability to ignore the authority of Lebanon’s legal and political institutions.
The probe into the blast has rekindled memories of Lebanon’s vicious 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Nevertheless, it was not just the blast that killed these Lebanese, but the cowardice of some politicians who refused to hold themselves accountable before the law and courts.
Mr. Nasrallah made allegations against the judge saying he was “playing politics” and that he was using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests.” There were reports from local Arabic news that Bitar received threats from Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination unit, Wafiq Safa. Through intermediaries, Safa made a stark warning to Bitar and made it clear his organization was displeased with how he was carrying out the case.
The message to Judge Bitar was straightforward, “We have had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force.” Bitar confirmed these threats in a letter to Lebanon’s public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidate. So far, his work has not been deterred. This, however, may not last.
The United States is a traditional ally of Lebanon and should continue to more forcefully prioritize independence of the judiciary as a key anti-corruption reform upon which additional aid can be unlocked. Recently the Biden Administration and Congress increased aid to Lebanon’s ailing economy and security forces to help their families survive the pandemic. All of this is welcome and can help bring more stability to Lebanon in preparation for the May election. However, future aid should be predicated on guaranteeing the safety and freedom of judges to conduct their work without intimidation. Lebanon’s failing democracy can be rescued, not simply by the power of voters, but by the confidence of its judiciary’s independence.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. Image by Katy Kildee https://www.katykildee.com.