Monday, January 20, 2003

Civil rights activists say penal code amendments ‘fail to safeguard human dignity’

New group argues first overhaul since 1943 does not go far enough, and may even represent backward step

From the Daily Star staff , Beirut Lebanon.

The proposed amendments to the Penal Code, currently being studied by Parliament, “fail to safeguard human dignity,” according to civil rights activists who are mobilizing to fight the proposed revisions.
Hurriyat Khasa (Personal Liberties), a newly formed private nonprofit institution that includes a number of prominent lawyers, is lobbying for greater individual safeguards against the powers of the state in efforts to revise the code.

The group is currently organizing a national conference to coordinate criticisms by several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of the proposed amendments.

The Penal Code, on the books since 1943, is currently undergoing its first major overhaul, which may take up to two years to push through Parliament.

Akkar MP Mikhael Daher, the head of Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee, told The Daily Star Sunday that the committee “had human dignity as an objective,” while studying the proposed changes to the code. He added that the committee “welcomes any comments from civil organizations.”

Lawyer Nizar Saghieh, one of Hurriyat’s directors, said the institution found that while revisions to the code were meant to modernize it, they actually “kept the code stuck in backward times,” promoting dictatorship and interference in private affairs. He added that the code was too lax in its monitoring of public affairs.

The code ignores crimes against humanity and actions that alienate minority groups such as maids and prostitutes, who often work under “slave-like” conditions, he said.

“Legislation should be made so that crimes against humanity and war crimes would not be eligible for amnesty or statute of limitations,” he said.

Under the current code, all citizens are encouraged to criticize a public servant if he or she is not fulfilling their public duties to the best of their capacities, and spares the accuser of being charged with slander if the accusations prove to be true.

But the amended code actually places a precondition on anyone who wishes to criticize a public servant for shirking his or her duties, requiring the accuser to prove “good intentions” before delivering an accusation, according to Hurriyat.

“But proving good intentions is a slippery matter that can be used against the opposition or journalists when they seek to monitor abuse of public office,” warned Saghieh.

“This might discourage people from monitoring the work of public servants, thus potentially facilitating abuse of public offices,” he said.
He said that a public servant could get away with just about anything by simply claiming that their accuser is politically motivated, regardless of the veracity of the accusation.

The group also warned that amendments to the code will choke freedoms currently enjoyed by NGOs.

“Any organization established or managed in a manner not approved by the Interior Ministry could be considered illegal, even if it is conducting legal activities,” said Saghieh.

In a move that further discourages citizens’ monitoring of public life, the amendments equate a person’s verbal or written promotion of a certain issue with material participation, he said.
Instead of protecting privacy, he claimed, the code supports further meddling in the private lives of citizens.

“While most modern countries remove private information like sexual orientation, civil status and diseases from a person’s public records, a Lebanese person’s private telephone conversations, photograph or private details are still not protected under the revised code,” said Saghieh.

Broadcasting pictures of suspects on television or in other news media before they are convicted of a crime is common practice in Lebanon, despite the fact that this might irreversibly harm an innocent person’s reputation, he said.

Despite changes in cultural traditions and norms, the concept of honor is still given high priority here, the group says.

“A woman who may have already lost her virginity could claim that a certain man had stripped her of her virginity and pursue him legally, potentially sending him to prison,” said Saghieh. While the current code calls for the presence of a written promise of marriage, the revised version removes this condition.

“Historically, the purpose of protecting a woman’s virginity had no basis in protecting a family’s honor but of ensuring a higher dowry, since a virgin used to attract a higher price,” said Saghieh.

A contradiction in the code leads to penalizing domestic rape between a married couple, while exonerating a rapist who offers to marry his victim, he said.

Moreover, Saghieh said that a woman who killed her child that was born out of wedlock would not be prosecuted for manslaughter, but would get a reduced sentence of a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, “with the aim of safeguarding a woman’s honor.”
The same crime in the past would have received a minimum of five years and a maximum of 10 years imprisonment, he said.

“The current Penal Code restricts the cases when a woman is eligible for such a reduced sentence to when the child is the result of incest or rape,” Saghieh explained, “but the proposed amendments encompass any baby born out of wedlock.”

Private sexual practices are also under scrutiny, he said, adding that whether consensual or not, all sexual activity with or among minors ­ anyone under 18 years old ­ is banned.
While the 1943 code only penalizes sodomy, the revisions ban all “sexual activity that is contrary to nature.”

Concerning euthanasia, and while few countries have legalized the practice, Lebanon’s revised code has actually reduced the sentence prescribed for euthanasia from 10 to three years, according to the group.


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