National conference gives Lebanese abolitionist movement a boost
The Lebanese Association for Civil Rights (LACR), a World Coalition member organisation, organised a national conference against the death penalty on 24 and 25 January at the Lawyers’ House in Beirut. More than 250 people took part in the event, which was organised in partnership with Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM) and the Beirut Bar.
ECPM executive director and World Coalition Vice-President Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan remarked that Lebanon became de facto abolitionist a few days before the conference, as it is now more than ten years since the last execution there on 20 January 2004. He called on Lebanese leaders to follow the global trend towards abolition and take concrete steps this year.
Justice Minister Chakib Cortbawi made a firm commitment never to sign an execution warrant because “you cannot kill someone in the name of society”, as this would mean “there is no difference between us and the murderer”.
However, he highlighted the difficulty in having an open debate on abolition because of the violence suffered by Lebanon’s population. Attacks linked to tensions between religious communities across the Middle East target the country nearly every week.
Georges Joureij, president of the Beirut Bar, Walid Salibi, the founder of the National Campaign Against the Death Penalty, and European diplomats addressed the conference too.
Former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, now a member of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, said that centrist parliamentarians who favour abolition could form a majority. However, he acknowledged that the death penalty would “not be abolished any time soon in Lebanon because of political, religious and legal considerations”.
Preserving the moratorium
In the short term, the priority is therefore to strengthen the moratorium on the use of capital punishment. “Nobody wants to see executions, this is what we must preserve,” said Anne Souléliac, who is in charge of international human rights issues at the Paris Bar.
The National Campaign Against the Death Penalty will also revive its efforts to influence Lebanese society. Its 77 member organisations have adopted a new structure and will welcome new members to widen their advocacy reach.
Attorneys, who took a significant part in the conference, are among the first Lebanese to organise against the death penalty. Anne Souléliac co-chaired a training session presenting them key aspects of the best practices manual on the defence of clients facing the death penalty. English and French versions were circulated on USB drives, pending the publication of an Arabic version later this year.
“We touched on sections of the manual that are relevant in Lebanon through a dialogue with Hasna Abdul Reda, a young Lebanese lawyer who illustrated them with local examples,” she said. A discussion on the defence of vulnerable defendants such as foreign nationals raised the issue of translation, which is not covered by Lebanese legal aid. “Hasna Abdul Reda talked about the assistance she obtained from consulates such as those of Ethiopia or Banglagesh so that she could hire interpreters and have them registered in the local courts,” Souléliac said. Participating lawyers also discussed the use of medical records to introduce mitigating evidence.
Another practical workshop offered educators tips on teaching the abolition of the death penalty in schools. An educational network and a legal network against the death penalty were launched to pursue the work initiated during the workshops.
Strong testimonies peppered the conference, including the music version of a poem written by a death row prisoner in Roumieh prison and sung by LACR. Young people accompanied the performance by launching kites representing people sentenced to death into the conference hall.
The conference ended with an appeal to Lebanese politicians to continue existing initiatives against the death penalty in the country and act to implement international conventions adopted by Lebanon into national law.
The appeal also calls on judges to use as much discretion as the law allows to avoid handing down death sentences.
The conference takes place every two to three years and was funded by the European Union and Sweden funded the event.