"Beirut Lawyer Faces Libel Charges and Harassed by Lebanese Government"

Human Rights Watch Press Release

22 May 1997

In a letter sent today to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Human Rights Watch vigorously protests the prosecution of prominent Beirut defense attorney and human rights activist Dr. Muhamad Mugraby. The letter comes in advance of a May 26 hearing in the Beirut Court of Appeals in which Lebanese government prosecutors will appeal an earlier decision in Dr. Mugraby's favor. Human Rights Watch fears a reversal could have "grave implications for the right to counsel and the freedom to report rights abuses in Lebanon." A copy of the letter follows.

His Excellency Rafiq al-Hariri
Prime Minister of Lebanon
c/o His Excellency Victor El-Zmeter
Deputy Chief of Mission
Embassy of Lebanon
2560 28th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008

May 22, 1997
via facsimile: 202-939-6324

Your Excellency:

In a case with potentially grave implications for the right to counsel and the freedom to report rights abuses in Lebanon, the Beirut Court of Appeals will hear on May 26 three cases brought by the Lebanese government against a prominent Beirut lawyer, Dr. Muhamad Mugraby. Dr. Mugraby faces prosecution for actions and statements directly related to his role as a defense attorney. This prosecution continues despite the refusal by the Council of the Beirut Bar to waive his immunity from prosecution.

The hearing is of special concern because it involves actions which Dr. Mugraby has taken on behalf of clients subject to legal proceedings instituted by their government:

In all three cases, the Council of the Beirut Bar, of which Dr. Mugraby is a member, rejected the Prosecutor General's request that the council waive Dr. Mugraby's immunity from prosecution. Under Lebanese law, no criminal action against a lawyer may proceed unless the Council waives his or her immunity, and this immunity may not be waived in cases involving actions directly related to the defendant's role as an attorney.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Lebanon acceded in 1972, guarantees the right to counsel in criminal cases. This right is meaningless if lawyers may not defend their clients zealously within the limits prescribed by law. For this reason, the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in 1990, calls on governments to ensure that lawyers "are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference" and that they "shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution . . . for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics."

Furthermore, should the government continue its prosecution of the published libel charges, it will do so in violation of Dr. Mugraby's right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the ICCPR. To insist that Dr. Mugraby's letter to Amnesty International complaining of the treatment of his client constitutes defamation of some of the leading institutions of the Lebanese government is to cast a long and intimidating shadow over others who might think of reporting human rights violations to international organizations.

Given Dr. Mugraby's prominent role in defense of human rights in Lebanon and his actions on behalf of dozens of persons adversely affected by Solidere, Human Rights Watch fears that these prosecutions are designed to intimidate and harass Dr. Mugraby for actions that fall squarely within his rights, and indeed constitute his duties, as a rights advocate. As further evidence of the arbitrary nature of the prosecution, none of the three complaints before the Council of the Beirut Bar specified the charges the Prosecutor General intended to bring against Dr. Mugraby. Even if these legal proceedings ultimately fail, Human Rights Watch will regard with concern the chilling effect that this case will have on lawyers and activists less prominent and well-established than Dr. Mugraby who are or may be engaged in the defense of individuals against government prosecution and rights abuses.

For these reasons, Human Rights Watch respectfully calls on the Beirut Court of Appeals to uphold the Council of the Beirut Bar's decision to preserve Dr. Mugraby's immunity from prosecution for actions and statements on behalf of his clients. Human Rights Watch also calls on the Lebanese government to drop its case against Dr. Mugraby and to refrain from prosecuting persons reporting human rights abuses under the false complaints and published libel provisions of its Penal Code. In the meantime, we intend to follow closely Dr. Mugraby's case and the outcome of the government's appeal.

Eric Goldstein
Acting Director, Human Rights Watch / Middle East

cc:Elias Hrawi, President of Lebanon
Nazih Tarabay, Chief Judge of the Beirut Court of Appeals
Mr. Adnan Addoum, Prosecutor General's Office
William Clinton, President of the United States
Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of State of the United States
Manuel Marin, Vice-Commissioner of the European Union
Hans van Mierlo, President of the Council of Europe
Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom
Jacques Chirac, President of France
Hervé de Charette, Foreign Minister of France

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