Human Rights Activist and Information Technology Expert Tried and Convicted by Beirut Military Court on charges Related to the Freedom of the Internet.

Beirut, Friday March 9th 2001- Kamal el Batal, director of MIRSAD, and Ziad Mugraby, manager of ITX, were tried earlier today before the military court in Beirut on charges of compromising the reputation of the Vice Squad by means of distributing a leaflet to the effect that an officer threatened someone. MIRSAD is a Lebanese Human Rights NGO; ITX is a well-known Lebanese information technology company that also runs the Internet service provider Destination. In the evening, the court convicted Batal and Mugraby and sentenced them to three months imprisonment each and commuted the sentences to a three hundred thousand Lebanese pounds ($200) each.

The President of the court, Brigadier Maher Safieddeen, a professional soldier with no legal training, and who dissented against commuting the sentences, opened the trial by reading the decision of the military court of cassation, which had earlier turned down an appeal by Batal and Mugraby to declare the military court without jurisdiction in this case.

Mr. Mugraby was questioned by Brigadier Safieddeen over circumstances prior to the prosecution and was not question at all as to the subject of the charge. Mugraby denied any wrong doing in general and affirmed that a certain police officer, Major Jacques Bakayev, did in fact make the threat that if the information requested on the users of Destination is not supplied the ISP will be closed down by order of the Beirut prosecutor, Joseph Maamari, who had initiated the police action. Mugraby had steadfastly refused to provide any information on Destinations users as requested by the police.

Mr. Batal confirmed upon questioning that a contingent from the Vice Squad raided the offices of Destination unlawfully. An argument insued between Batal and Brigadier Saffieddeen over the lawfulness of the raid and the role of human rights organizations that drew the participation of Assistant Prosecutor Asaad Gideon. Dr. Muhamad Mugraby, attorney for the defense, intervened and protested that Batal was not on trial for his opinions.

At that point, Brigadier Safieddeen addressed Dr. Mugraby, and requested his opinion as to the issue of the legality of actions initiated by the public prosecutor. Dr. Mugraby stated that there was a big issue involved and that, in his opinion, public prosecutors often took actions that violate the rules of criminal procedure. Brigadier Safieddeen insisted that Batal describe the legal violation involved. Batal answered: They (men from the Vice Squad) had no written warrant.

Brigadier Safieddeen questioned what he described as the missing role of international human rights organizations in defending the oppressed worldwide and raising the issue of human rights violations committed through the Internet and questioned Batal whether MIRSAD issued any statement protesting such violation. Batal responded that MIRSAD is a Lebanese human rights NGO and limits its activities to Lebanon but keeps in touch with international human rights organizations.

The defense attorney, Dr. Mugraby, submitted a written brief enclosing six exhibits. The brief questioned the courts jurisdiction and the legality of the prosecution which was based on Article 157 of the military penal code and does not apply to the alleged act, maintained that the right to prosecute has lapsed for not filing the charges within the statutory three months period and for the lack of any prosecution request by the Internal Security Forces. Dr. Mugraby also pleaded that the alleged act was covered by the amnesty published in June 1st 2000 for all crimes committed through printed matters. Finally, and in the alternative, Dr. Mugraby requested permission to present evidence as to the truthfulness of the subject act alleged by the prosecution, pursuant to Article 387 of the penal code which provides that no action for defamation or libel of a public official can be maintained if the alleged act on which the charges are based can be proven to be true.

In his brief, Dr. Mugraby noted the strange coincidence that the chief of the Vice Squad, Colonel Youssef Samneh, who directed the investigation against Batal and Mugraby, his assistant, Major Sleem and most of their men are behind bars and being tried before the same court on charges that are unflattering to the reputation of the Vice Squad.

The prosecution and trial of Batal and Mugraby were highly irregular. At no time were they officially informed of the nature and reasons for the charges brought against them. No evidence whatsoever was presented by the prosecution against the accused or to connect them to the alleged flyer. They were not apprehended in the act of distributing the alleged flyer. The actual flyer was not presented in evidence. When interrogated by the police, Mugraby categorically denied any knowledge of the flyer. In answer to a direct question by Dr. Mugraby before the military court, Batal denied any connection to the flyer. The case file contained a letter by Col. Samneh admitting that he received the only copy of the alleged flyer, itself a photocopy, from Major Bakayev.

Furthermore, the case against Batal and Mugraby was heard among a total of 94 cases that were on the calendar of the military court for the day. The sentence against them was pronounced among fifty four final judgments rendered in the said cases a little after 8:00 PM on the evening of the same day. The hearing of the last of the 94 cases was concluded at 7:40 PM. The actual judgments were made, as always, by filling in the blanks on printed forms.

Batal and Mugraby were not permitted to leave the military court premises until they paid the fines in cash. They had to wait for almost two hours until the court cashier, an employee of the ministry of finance, could come from his home and sign receipts. Their trial had concluded at 12:30 PM but they were not permitted to leave the court premises although they had not under arrest and, theoretically, were free to go!

Kamal el Batal, 38, is a civil engineer by training and is in the business of engineering consulting and contracting. He is a graduate of the American University of Beirut and also studied engineering at Ecole St. Geneuvieve in France. Batal, is a human rights defender and activists. He and Dr. Muhamad Mugraby co-founded MIRSAD. Ziad Mugraby, 27, and the son of Dr. Mugraby, is not involved in MIRSAD or in the defense of human rights. He was trained in economics and information technology in the United States and he graduated from Cornell University. In Lebanon Ziad, has been a leader in the development of the Internet and in information technology. In 1995, he founded Destination which is a leading ISP.

The current prosecution came in response to protests made by MIRSAD against the pressures that Mugraby, ITX and Destination were subjected to. MIRSAD declared its opposition to all interference in the freedom of the Internet especially that some reports were circulating that the governments of Lebanon and Syria were considering cooperation in this field by establishing a jointly owned Internet nod with appropriate filtering and monitoring procedures. Subsequently, the reports were proven credible as the Lebanese ministry of communications and its Syrian counterpart signed a memorandum of agreement on the subject which has not been made public.

Lawyers for MIRSAD, Batal and Mugraby are currently studying the case to make recommendations as to what further course of action to take, if any, to confront the gross abuse and injustice manifested. We will keep you advised.

It is very sad that at this time when Lebanon is in greatest need of upholding the rule of law as one of the necessary preconditions to salvaging the crumbling public institutions and the fast-sinking national economy, under the heavy weight of a corrupt and inefficient public administration and political bosses seeking their own self-interest and the interests of their cronies, human rights are muzzled and young and highly qualified Lebanese, whose role is most vital to national recovery, are being unlawfully punished for daring to do what they have the right to do, and without any regard to the consequences.

Active support from all Lebanese, individuals and groups, and from all non-Lebanese who are friends of Lebanon or defenders of human rights, is much needed to put breaks on the ongoing lunacy that is driving Lebanon into new depths of disaster and the Lebanese into ever expanding misery and denial of their most elementary and basic rights.