US watching closely as Lebanese military court tries civilians
Washington’s anger comes ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year and after a military court in Beirut sentenced a local journalist to thirteen months in prison for “insulting the military.”
The US is growing increasingly frustrated with the crackdown on press freedom in Lebanon and the use of military courts to try civilians, officials have told Al Arabiya English in recent days.
Washington’s anger comes ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year and after a military court in Beirut sentenced a local journalist to thirteen months in prison for “insulting the military.” The sentenced journalist had simply criticized the Lebanese Army.
Radwan Mortada was tried in absentia after slamming Lebanese officials during televised remarks earlier this year and saying that the army was to blame for the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast.
He has also accused the judge leading the explosion of being close to the US and being “weak.”
“The support [Judge Tarek] Bitar has from America and some of the right-wing Lebanese parties only increases my apprehension and concern,” Mortada said in an interview after being sentenced last month.
Despite Mortada working for a pro-Hezbollah newspaper - which consistently criticizes America, while supporting Iran – US officials have decried the use of military courts for civilians.
“Governments should protect the rights of all persons to voice their views without fear of intimidation, even in cases where we do not agree with those views,” a State Department official told Al Arabiya English.
In Lebanon the Publications Court is where journalists are supposed to face any legal actions.
The Military Court was formed to bring legal action against security personnel, but it has often been used against those accused of endangering national security or terrorism.
The Lebanese Army command does not, however, have a direct role in the military court, which falls under the Defense Ministry.
“The LAF [Army] command technically has no oversight over a military court system that reports to the Defense Ministry and Lebanon's political powers that be,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “This has turned into a recurring crisis and source of acrimony for LAF leadership,” he said.
In another case involving a Lebanese civilian, Shaden Fakih was summoned last month to the Military Court for harming the reputation of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).
Her trial date was set for June 24, 2022, after being questioned by the ISF for a video she posted asking the local police to deliver her a sanitary pad during coronavirus lockdown measures.
This follows several cases seen as relating to public freedoms in past months— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) December 13, 2021
-3-week detention of journalist @no_homsi
-Military trial set for comedian Shaden Fakih
-Military prosecution of human rights lawyer Mohammad Sablouh
-Deportation of Reuters colleague @suleimankhalidi
In Fakih’s case, no law addresses how social media postings should be dealt with.
But both cases have drawn local and international condemnations.
“The use of courts, particularly military ones, to prosecute defamation cases against civilians undermines freedom of expression,” the State Department official said.
It is not the first time the military court has made international headlines.
Hanin Ghaddar, a former journalist and current fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was sentenced to prison, also in absentia.
Contrary to Mortada, Ghaddar was a vocal critic of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Like Mortada, Ghaddar was tried after criticizing the Lebanese Army for the way it was treating Hezbollah.
“I believe the military court [is] one of the most oppressive tools in Lebanon, as it is clearly politicized and goes after opponents of the political class,” Ghaddar said.
She cited the sentencing of Mortada as an example of how all the political class could “infiltrate the tribunal.”
“However, it is clear that the majority of its victims are critical of Hezbollah and its allies, indicating the political affiliation of the military tribunal - its head and judges,” Ghaddar told Al Arabiya English.
She said that Washington - the largest donor of resources and weapons to the Lebanese army - needs to increase its pressure on the military to stop going after civilians.
“This is even more significant today as we see more attempts by the political class to protect itself, and with the elections date nearing,” Ghaddar said, alluding to next year’s elections.
The Lebanese Army did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Meanwhile, US officials have conveyed their concerns to the appropriate authorities and will continue to report on the matter “publicly in our annual Human Rights Report to Congress,” the State Department official said.