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Don’t resurrect Lebanon’s death penalty—A Commentary by Nadim Houry and Sirine Shebaya ’12

The following commentary was published in The Lebanon Daily Star on August 13, 2010.

Don’t resurrect Lebanon’s death penalty
By Nadim Houry and Sirine Shebaya ’12

Last month, Lebanon's Military Tribunal sentenced two Lebanese men to death for providing Israel's intelligence services with information about Hizbullah. We may see more death sentences in the coming months, given that an estimated 100 suspects await trial in military court on charges of spying for Israel.

President Michel Sleiman said that he will sign off on any death penalties the Military Tribunal issues (the president and prime minister must sign all execution orders). Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called for the speedy implementation of death sentences against anyone convicted of collaborating with Israel. Other Lebanese political figures support this. Dozens of members of Fatah al-Islam, an armed Salafist group that fought the Lebanese Army in 2007, still await trial before the military court or the Justice Council on terrorism-related charges that also carry the death penalty.

It would be a grave error to execute these men - however heinous their crimes. Lebanon has not executed anyone since 2004, and to resume executions now would be a step in the wrong direction.

This is not a popular position to hold these days. With the almost daily discovery of alleged spies, anyone criticizing the death penalty incurs scorn for being "soft" on those conspiring against the country, or its efforts to combat espionage. This is precisely what makes it important to bring the issue into focus once again - before political expediency undermines the advances Lebanon has made in recent years toward abolishing capital punishment.

There are many compelling reasons for objecting to the death penalty - the value of every human life, the wrongness of countering killing with killing, and the inhumane methods used to execute people.

Perhaps most important, there is a very real possibility that the state will execute innocent men. The possibility of wrongful conviction exists in even the fairest trials - hence the need for a robust appeals process - but it is particularly worrisome in countries where the authorities often violate due process rights for security suspects. Unfortunately, Lebanon is one such country.

Human Rights Watch has gathered testimony from numerous detainees held by Military Intelligence and the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces - the two main security agencies investigating cases of espionage and the actions of the armed Salafists. Many told us security officers beat and tortured them during interrogation to extract confessions.

Local human rights groups have raised concerns that Mahmoud Rafeh, a retired member of the security forces sentenced to death on February 18 for spying for Israel and assisting in the assassination of two members of Islamic Jihad, was tortured before he confessed. Rafeh spent two years and nine months in detention in isolation in the basement of the Defense Ministry. The Lebanese authorities deny all allegations of torture, but they never opened an investigation, so we have no assurance that torture did not occur.

The fact that these trials are taking place in a military court - or in the case of many Fatah al-Islam members, in the Justice Council, a special criminal court examining crimes against state security referred by the Cabinet - is also cause for concern. In such trials, military judges often fail to order investigations into credible allegations of torture, beating, and ill-treatment, and rely on confessions extracted under duress.

There is also no civilian oversight of the Military Tribunal, and while its trials are theoretically open to the public, in practice access is very limited, with family members and independent observers regularly denied entry. Cases before the Justice Council are even more problematic, as there is no right to appeal.

Death penalty supporters argue that it acts as a deterrent. Many have said that if Lebanon had responded more harshly against those who allegedly collaborated with Israel during its two-decade occupation, Israel would have fewer spies in the country today.

However, the facts don't support this argument. Many studies conducted in other death penalty countries have shown that it is not an effective crime deterrent. What works best is good law enforcement. Potential spies - like other potential criminals - are more deterred by the fear of being caught, and facing other serious punishments, than by the death penalty. After all, a long prison sentence is not an attractive proposition. And issuing death sentences in highly charged contexts where emotions run high and public opinion is united against the convicted individuals risks turning what should be a rational, judicial process into a national mob lynching.

The sad part is that the death penalty is making a comeback in Lebanon at a time when it seemed to be fizzling out. Since the 1998 public hanging of two men convicted of murder, Lebanon has largely maintained a de facto moratorium on judicial executions. Authorities broke the moratorium only once, in 2004, to appease sectarian tensions after a Shiite man killed eight people in his office, most of them Christians. The day he was hanged, the authorities also executed by firing squad two men convicted of unrelated murders, one Christian and one Sunni, in a morbid exercise in sectarian balancing.

Lebanon seemed ready to move beyond the de facto moratorium in 2009, when Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, with the backing of seven other ministers, proposed abolishing the death penalty. Parliament never acted on this proposal, and the climate surrounding the current spy cases makes its passage unlikely at this stage.

Yet this is not the time for those who support abolishing the death penalty to be silent. A commitment to human rights cannot depend on the good character or popularity of those whose rights are being violated. The guilt of those sentenced to die does not diminish the wrongness of the death penalty. And wrong it is - especially when the justice system that convicted them is rife with due process violations.

Nadim Houry is director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch. Sirine Shebaya is a law student at Yale University. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.