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Freedom in the World 2004 - Lebanon

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Lebanon, 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54a1c.html [accessed 17 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Not Free
Population: 42,000,000
GNI/Capita: $4,010
Life Expectancy: 73
Religious Groups: Muslim [Mostly Shia] (70 percent), Christian (30 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Arab (95 percent), Armenian (4 percent), other (1 percent)
Capital: Beirut


Overview

During 2003, Syria carried out two major troop redeployments, reducing its occupation force in Lebanon to fewer than 20,000 soldiers. However, its firm control of Lebanon's government continued to be the greatest impediment to freedom in Lebanon. The state's reaction to several major corruption scandals and security incidents during the year highlighted its continuing inability to investigate alleged wrongdoing by allies of Syria.

For more than a thousand years, the rough terrain of Mount Lebanon attracted Christian and heterodox-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world. After centuries of European protection and relative autonomy under Turkish rule, Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas were established as a French mandate in 1920. After winning its independence in 1943, the new state of Lebanon maintained a precarious democratic system based on the division of parliamentary seats, high political offices, and senior administrative positions among the country's 17 officially recognized sectarian communities. As emigration transformed Lebanon's slight Christian majority into a minority, Muslim leaders demanded amendments to the fixed 6-to-5 ratio of Christian-to-Muslim parliamentary seats and to exclusive Maronite Christian control of the presidency. In 1975, war erupted between a coalition of Lebanese Muslim and leftist militias aligned with Palestinian guerrilla groups on one side and an array of Christian militias bent on preserving Christian political privileges on the other.

After the first few years of fighting, a loose consensus emerged among Lebanese politicians regarding a new power-sharing arrangement. However, following the entry of Syrian and Israeli troops into Lebanon in 1976 and 1978, the various militias and their foreign backers had little interest in disarming. The civil war lost much of its sectarian character over the next decade, with the bloodiest outbreaks of fighting taking place mainly within the Shiite, Christian, and Palestinian communities. Outside forces played a more direct role in the fighting. The Syrians battled Israeli forces in 1982, attacked a Palestinian-Islamist coalition in the mid-1980s, and fought the Lebanese army in 1989 and 1990, while the Israelis combated Palestinian and Shiite groups.

In 1989, the surviving members of Lebanon's 1972 parliament convened in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and agreed to a plan put forward by the Arab League that weakened the presidency, established equality in Christian and Muslim parliamentary representation, and mandated close security cooperation with occupying Syrian troops. After the ouster of General Michel Aoun from east Beirut by Syrian forces in October 1990, a new Syrian-backed government extended its writ throughout most of the country.

Over the next 12 years, Syria consolidated its control over Lebanese state institutions, particularly the presidency, the judiciary, and the security forces. However, in return for tacit Western acceptance of its control of Lebanon, Damascus permitted a degree of political and civil liberties in Lebanon that exceeded those in most other Arab countries. While those who directly criticized the occupation risked arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, criticism of the government was largely tolerated. The motley assortment of militia chiefs, traditional elites, and nouveaux riches who held civilian political positions in postwar Lebanon were persuaded to accept continued Syrian hegemony, primarily through a system of institutionalized corruption fueled by massive deficit spending on reconstruction during the 1990s. By the end of that decade, Lebanon's government debt exceeded its own gross national product and the economy was in deep recession.

As a result of this dismal economic downturn, vocal opposition to the Syrian presence began spreading across the political and sectarian spectrum. Mass demonstrations against the occupation grew in size and frequency throughout 2000 and 2001, while traditional Christian political and religious leaders, who had previously been silent about the issue, began denouncing it openly. Syria downsized its military presence in 2001, but demands for a complete pullout persisted.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Western pressure to preserve civil liberties subsided, in exchange for Syrian and Lebanese cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda. A number of unprecedented measures were taken to stifle freedom in 2002. Security forces closed an independent television station that had given voice to political dissidents, the government invalidated an opposition victory in a parliamentary by-election, and several opposition figures were placed under investigation for alleged ties to Israel and other foreign powers.

In April 2003, Damascus appointed a new cabinet widely seen as more solidly pro-Syrian. A deadlock between allies of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and President Emile Lahoud paralyzed government decision making on important economic matters. The year witnessed a number of unresolved corruption scandals, most notably in connection with a debt crisis at Electricite du Liban, a state-owned company that provides power to most of the country, and the collapse in July of Bank al-Madina.

Numerous politically related security incidents occurred during the year, all of which remained conspicuously unsolved. In June, Prime Minister Hariri's television station was damaged by rockets. In July, political opposition figures traveling to a luncheon in the hometown of Interior Minister Elias Murr came under machine-gun fire and were forced to turn back. Later that month, the wife of Johnny Abdo, a former intelligence chief and presidential aspirant, was assaulted.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Lebanese people have only a limited capacity to choose their own government. The Lebanese president is formally selected every six years by the 128-member parliament. In practice, however, this choice is made after Syrian authorization, known as "the password" in the Lebanese media. Syria and its allies also influence parliamentary and municipal elections more indirectly. The distribution of parliamentary seats is skewed in favor of regions where Syrian forces have been stationed the longest, such as the Beqaa Valley, and electoral districts are blatantly gerrymandered to ensure the election of pro-Syrian politicians. There has also been widespread interference during the elections themselves, with Lebanese security forces often present inside the polls. Prior to the June 2002 by-election in Metn, Interior Minister Elias Murr declared that using voting booth curtains to ensure secrecy was "optional," a remarkably blatant move to facilitate vote buying. A September 2003 by-election in the Baabda-Aley district was relatively free and fair, but local monitors reported some irregularities.

Political corruption in Lebanon is widely considered to be the most egregious in the Arab world. Transparency International listed Lebanon as the most corrupt of 11 Middle Eastern and North African countries surveyed in its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Lebanon has a long tradition of press freedom. Five independent television stations and more than 30 independent radio stations operate in Lebanon, though they are owned by prominent political and commercial elites. Dozens of independent print publications reflect a diverse range of views. Internet access is not restricted. However, in September 1991, the government signed a treaty with its larger neighbor explicitly pledging to "ban all political and media activity that might harm" Syria. This treaty, and a variety of subsequent laws drafted to comply with it, allows judges to censor foreign publications and to indict journalists for critical reporting on Syria, the Lebanese military, the security forces, the judiciary, and the presidency. In practice, such laws are mainly used to pressure the media into exercising self-censorship and rarely result in the imprisonment of journalists or the closure of media outlets. However, journalists who persistently violate taboos can be indicted and imprisoned on more serious charges. Permanent closure of licensed media outlets was rare until the closure of Murr Televisions (MTV) in 2002, which generated palpable anxiety among media owners of all political persuasions. MTV's appeal of the decision was rejected in April 2003.

Lebanese University professor Adonis Akra, the author of a newly published book about his experience in detention during an August 2001 crackdown against anti-Syrian activists, was indicted in February 2003 on charges of tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary and harming relations with Syria, and Dar al-Talia, the publishing house that printed the book, was shut down. On July 17, Amer Mashmoushi, the managing editor of the daily Al-Liwa, was indicted on charges of defaming the president after criticizing his handling of the Bank al-Madina scandal.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Lebanese constitution and protected in practice, though sectarianism is formally enshrined in the political system. Nearly 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are denied citizenship rights and face restrictions on working, building homes, and purchasing property. Academic freedom is long-standing and firmly entrenched. The country's universities are the region's most open and vibrant.

Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Although political parties are legal, a 1994 ban on the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party remains in place. Nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, are permitted to operate freely. Public demonstrations are not permitted without prior approval from the Interior Ministry, which does not rule according to uniform standards, and security forces routinely beat and arrest those who demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. Clashes between police and student activists occurred periodically throughout the year. Police forcibly dispersed a May 3 demonstration against the occupation using water cannons and batons, injuring 7 protestors and detaining 15 people.

All workers except those in government may establish unions, and all have the right to strike and to bargain collectively. Several major strikes occurred in 2003.

The judiciary is strongly influenced by Syrian political pressure, which affects the appointments of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates. The judicial system consists of civilian courts, a military court, and a judicial council. International standards of criminal procedure are not observed in the military court, which consists largely of military officers with no legal training, and cases are often tried in a matter of minutes. In recent years, the nominally independent Beirut Bar Association (BBA) has become less willing to confront the judiciary, allegedly because of widespread corruption. Muhamad Mugraby, a prominent human rights attorney who launched a campaign for "judicial integrity," was disbarred by the BBA in January 2003. After continuing to practice law, he was arrested in August on charges of "impersonating a lawyer" and detained for three weeks.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions by Lebanese (and, occasionally, Syrian) security forces are commonplace, and both have used torture in the past to extract confessions. It is widely known that the Syrian-controlled security agencies monitor the telephones of both cabinet ministers and political dissidents. Dozens of Islamist militants were arrested in 2003 on national security grounds. In May 2003, Hanna Chalita, a Christian political activist, was arrested by Syrian forces at the LebaneseSyrian border and detained for more than a week. In July, one of the scores of Lebanese political prisoners still held by Syria, Joseph Huways, died in custody after reportedly being denied medical treatment.

Foreign domestic workers are exploited routinely and physically abused by employers. Women enjoy most of the same rights as men, but suffer social and some legal discrimination. Since family and personal status matters are adjudicated by the religious authorities of each sectarian community, Muslim women are subject to discriminatory laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Women are underrepresented in politics, holding only three parliamentary seats and no cabinet positions, and do not receive equal social security provisions and other benefits. Men convicted of so-called honor crimes against women usually receive lenient sentences.

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