News / Middle East

    Ex-minister’s Trial Shines Spotlight on Lebanon's Military Court

    Former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha (L) speaks to the media at his home after being released in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 14, 2016.
    Former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha (L) speaks to the media at his home after being released in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 14, 2016.

    Some Lebanese see Michel Samaha as the ultimate traitor, but with the trial of the ex-minister who confessed to planning terrorist attacks on home soil imminent, the country’s judicial system has also found itself in the dock.

    Earlier this month, Beirut’s plush Achrafieh district echoed with calls for justice as demonstrators made themselves heard outside the home of Samaha in the first of a series of protests across the country.  

    A former information minister, Samaha was arrested in 2012 after being caught colluding, allegedly with a Syrian intelligence chief, to smuggle explosives into Lebanon with the aim of targeting political and religious figures.  The controversy generated by what some perceived as a short sentence, four-and-a-half years, led to a planned retrial.

    Samaha’s release, however, on $100,000 bail before his latest appearance at a military tribunal, has stirred anger once again.  The process has put the spotlight on questions over the role of the tribunal in Lebanon, with its independence, transparency and reach under scrutiny. 

    Potential for war

    Among a group protesting outside the military tribunal recently was 24-year-old Baker Halawi.

    “It’s ridiculous; a drug dealer might get 10 or 20 years; how come someone who wanted to blow things up gets the sentence he did?” he said.  “His plans could have caused a civil war.”  

    Leaked recordings of Samaha’s interrogations, as well as bugged conversations he had with an informant while planning attacks, are circulating in Lebanese media.

    For some, the plot is a reminder of the dark days of Lebanon’s Syrian military occupation, when prominent figures who stood against the occupation risked death.  This included former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination sparked a peaceful uprising in 2005 that drove out the occupation.

    Halawi is part of the Future Movement, the political organization with strong Sunni support led by Rafik Hariri’s son.

    For him, Samaha’s release on bail is just the latest sign of a continuing pro-Syrian regime influence on the country, this time exercised by Hezbollah, the largely Shi’ite group fighting in support of the Syrian state.

    “We know courts are influenced politically, and these courts in particular are influenced politically,” said Sami Nader, a director for Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

    “Hezbollah has influence on sensitive functions for sensitive institutions.”

    Extensive powers

    Created in its most modern form in the 1960's, Lebanon's military tribunal gained strength under Syrian occupation following the end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990.  Unlike its civilian counterpart, it is made up of mainly military figures, many of whom have little in the way of a legal background.

    And with the Lebanese army not just a military, but a political force, it is more “prone” to political influence, said Georges Ghali, who works for local human rights group ALEF.

    “You don’t have the separation of powers that you do in other courts.”

    Aside from political influence, the tribunal’s breadth of power and lack of accountability have alarmed civil rights activists.

    Its remit extends well beyond the military into internal and external security matters, with activists voicing fears over issues including incommunicado detention and use of the court to quell dissent.

    Last year, protesters arrested during the "You Stink" protests against the country's garbage pile-up faced investigation by the tribunal, while in 2013 it sentenced a journalist looking into arms trafficking to half a year in prison.

    As well as attempting to transfer Samaha’s trial to a civilian court, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi has sought to have the tribunal’s reach curtailed in a bid to “put the Lebanese justice system in harmony with international law and human rights conventions.”

    Those who have defended the court highlight its role in other Middle Eastern countries and say any change could weaken Lebanon's ongoing efforts to tackle extremism.

    Some attribute attacks on the court down to politics.

    “But it’s not about that - the main problem is the tribunal is an unfair one, and isn’t transparent,” said Wadih Al-Asmar, general secretary of the Lebanese Center for Human rights.

    “In modern democratic countries, military tribunals have less power, and it is only restricted to military issues.”


    As Samaha’s retrial approaches, the outrage is unlikely to die down.

    Meanwhile, the taped confessions that have received play in certain sections of the Lebanese media will continue to be aired.

    Like other activists who have campaigned on the issue for years, Ghali remains realistic about how much impact the case of the plotting minister will have on bringing about major change in the short term.

    “It’s a controversial topic, and many won’t vote for it purely because of their political positioning,” he said.

    At the very least, Ghali added, the tribunal is under much-needed scrutiny.

    “At least now groups are getting involved with these efforts, and at least we can build on this momentum.”

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    This forum has been closed.
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora