a miscarriage of justice?
A human rights activist and an internet portal owner have been found guilty of insulting the vice squad ­ yet no evidence was produced: Warren Singh-Bartlett reports

Kamal Batal and Mohammed Mughraby have spent the last week wondering what to do next.

Last Friday, Batal, who is the Director of human rights organization MIRSAD (Multi-Initiative on Rights: Search, Assist, Defend) and fellow defendant Ziad Mughraby, owner of local internet service provider Destination, and son of defending lawyer and Human Rights activist, Mohammed Mughraby, were found guilty of contravening Article 157 of the Military Penal Code, a statute which protects the army and the flag against defamation.
Batal and Mughraby still can’t quite believe that the tribunal found them guilty. Up until the last moment, both were confident the case against them would be dismissed.
“What has happened is totally unacceptable,” Batal said in an interview. “I wish and call upon the Human Rights community to ignore this (case) or to use it as a reason to unite and work together.”
Their case, which first appeared before the Tribunal on Sept. 25 last year, has captured the interest of several foreign governments. International organizations like Amnesty and the US-based Human Rights Watch have also been following events.
Batal and Mughraby’s session in court Friday lasted 40 minutes, most of which was taken up by comments made by Brigadier General Maher Safieddine, Chief of the Military Tribunal at Mathaf. After first instructing Ziad Mughraby on the evils of homosexuality and then Batal on the shortcomings of human rights organizations, Safieddine sentenced the pair to three months in prison.
The gay connection to the case is puzzling. Although the case originated from the Internal Security Force’s desire to track down the owners of a gay and lesbian website that they thought Mughraby’s Destination had a hand in producing. Neither defendant was on trial over charges relating to homosexuality. But the connection has been continuously invoked since the start of the trial.
Mughraby believes this has been done in order to tarnish the image of the defendants, working under the assumption that any link to homosexual activity, however tenuous, would associate the pair with illegal or immoral activities in the minds of the public.
If so, the ploy has worked. The link has been enough to scare the local human rights community into inaction.
The case appears to have provoked some dissent among the prosecutors ­ as per military tribunal regulations, each case is tried by a military, police and civil representative ­ although only the civilian has a background in law.
After some deliberation, the sentence was first reduced to one month in prison and then to a fine of LL300,000 each.
Neither defendant was happy with the outcome. If a fine is better than a jail sentence, it doesn’t change the fact that they were found guilty of charges they have vehemently denied since the start ­ those of “tarnishing the reputation of the vice squad by distributing a printed flyer.”
At no point in time have either Batal or Ziad Mughraby been shown the flyer. No witnesses were produced testifying to its existence, neither were either defendant caught in possession of one.
“If someone reads about the case, they will think that Ziad and Kamal have committed some crime warranting the intervention of the vice squad,” says the senior Mughraby. “I think it was a disgrace. Ziad and Kamal were never properly informed of the charges against them and they were never even asked what their plea would be … the most elementary rules of evidence and procedure were ignored.”
Batal said that he believed the “flyer” was a reference to a printout made of the e-mail alert MIRSAD issued its members regarding the ISF’s actions at Destination. The printout, which is believed to have been made by a private citizen for his own purposes, then found its way to the ISF.
A further source of contention was the jurisdiction of the military tribunal to preside over what Mughraby categorizes as a civilian matter. An attempt had been made to appeal the tribunal’s decision to prosecute but this was overturned in January.
Civilian cases are appearing with increasing frequency before the military tribunal. Of the 94 cases that were heard in Friday’s six-hour session, only 24 were military or police cases. “The Civil system would take years to hear 100 cases,” says Mughraby, who attributes the increasing role of the Tribunal in civil affairs to the “philosophy” of Military Prosecutor, General Nasri Lahoud.
“The tribunal believes the Lebanese are undisciplined and civil courts are corrupt and that the only way to discipline them is through the military tribunal.”
He further believes that throughout the trial, the onus was placed on his clients to prove their innocence and describes this as a breach of the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which states in Article 14, Paragraph 2 that “everyone charged of a criminal offense will have the right to be innocent until proven guilty.”
“No evidence was introduced in this case. There was no attempt to say they had the flyer,” says Mughraby. “If one existed, it would be like a dead body, but if there is no dead body, there is no murder case.”
According to Mughraby, Batal was on trial for his role as a human rights defender and Ziad Mughraby because he refused to give the ISF a list of the names of subscribers to Destination, which the vice squad wanted in order to pursue the website link.
For the moment, neither Batal nor Mughraby plan any further action. Ziad is happy to be allowed to get back on with his life, even if he is unhappy at having been found guilty.
Batal clearly sees things differently, as does Mughraby, senior, but for the moment, they are simply assessing their situation.

“People who are abused by the system lose faith in further avenues of grievance,” says Mughraby. “But we have a duty to continuously knock on the door and try the system because if we give up, we should just pack up and leave.”

DailyStar 16/03/01