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Refugee Sex Trafficking a Thorny Issue for Lebanon

Following our report on forced prostitution of women on the move, Human Rights Watch relays news of the arrest of a lawyer who accused Lebanese government officials of complicity in a sex trafficking ring involving Syrian refugees.

Written by Human Rights Watch Staff Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A room in the Chez Maurice Hotel, which was used as a prison and interrogation room in Maameltein, north of Beirut, Lebanon. The women were tortured by their traffickers and locked inside two hotels until their rescue last month. AP/Hussein Malla


Our three-part series on the cycles of sexual violence experienced by refugee women, especially from Syria is published here.

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese authorities arrested a lawyer and human rights activist, Nabil al-Halabi, on May 30, 2016, over his Facebook posts criticizing government officials. The authorities should immediately release him.

In his Facebook posts, Halabi accused Interior Ministry officials of corruption and possible complicity with people arrested by Internal Security forces on March 27 in connection with sex trafficking of Syrian women. On April 12, interior minister Nohad Machnouk filed a libel and defamation complaint against Halabi with the Public Prosecution in Beirut, citing the Facebook posts. A senior advisor to Machnouk also filed a separate libel and defamation complaint over the Facebook posts. Imprisonment for defamation normally violates freedom of expression as guaranteed under international law, and Halabi’s detention may also violate Lebanese law.

Khaled Kreydiyeh, one of Halabi’s lawyers, said that both Machnouk’s and senior advisor Maher Abou al-Khoudoud’s complaints cite Halabi’s Facebook posts as evidence, including his April 4 Facebook post denouncing corruption within the office of the Interior Ministry and alluding to some employees’ complicity in the alleged sex trafficking ring. On March 27, ISF had discovered 75 women in two buildings, most of them Syrian, who had been held against their will and forced into sexual slavery.

Maya al-Ammar, an official with the Lebanese women's rights group, Kafa, Arabic for "Enough," speaks about the rise in trafficking during an interview at her office in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Maya al-Ammar, an official with the Lebanese women’s rights group, Kafa, Arabic for “Enough,” speaks about the rise in trafficking during an interview at her office in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

“Al-Halabi’s arrest for criticizing Lebanese officials and the intimidating way it was carried out sets a dangerous precedent,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “The Interior Ministry may not like what al-Halabi wrote, but that didn’t give them the right to storm into his house and lock him up.”

Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) stormed Halabi’s home in the early morning hours of May 30, breaking down his front door and arresting him. Kreydiyeh said the authorities told him that they arrested Halabi because he failed to appear for legal proceedings in a libel and defamation case filed against him by senior advisor Khoudoud.

Kreydiyeh said that Khoudoud had filed a separate libel and defamation claim against Halabi for his Facebook posts and that he was never properly notified of the hearing so he did not violate any judicial request to appear.

Halabi remained in detention overnight.

The Lebanese penal code criminalizes libel and defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases. The Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure allows an investigating judge to issue an enforceable summons to ensure the presence of a defendant who fails to appear to a hearing without a legitimate excuse but then the law requires the defendant to be questioned within 24 hours of the execution of the summons.

Following this initial 24-hour questioning period, Lebanese law does not permit pre-trial arrests for crimes punishable by imprisonment for one year or less, which is what defamation of regular government officials entails.

In subsequent Facebook posts, Halabi urged the Interior Ministry to “clean” itself of corrupt personnel.

Laws that allow imprisonment in response to criticism of individuals or state officials are incompatible with Lebanon’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. Such laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, and they chill freedom of expression. Additionally, “libel,” “defamation” and “insult” are not well-defined in Lebanese law, and such vague and broadly worded provisions can be used to quell criticism of the actions or policies of government officials.

While few bloggers, activists and journalists end up in jail, the proliferation of such prosecutions and the threat of arrest reflect an urgent need for Lebanon to amend its laws to remove criminal sanctions for libel and defamation.

A whip on a table in the guard's room of the Chez Maurice Hotel in Maameltein, north of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

A whip on a table in the guard’s room of the Chez Maurice Hotel in Maameltein, north of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

“You don’t protect a reputation by intimidating those criticizing you,” Houry said. “Lebanon’s judiciary should protect freedom of expression from officials who may be tempted to flex their muscles against their critics.”

This article originally appeared on HRW’s website and was reprinted with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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