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Lebanon: Officials divided as calls to reinstate death penalty grow

Last execution in Lebanon
Last execution in Lebanon, coastal town of Tabarja, 1998
The murder of 24-year-old university student Roy Hamoush on his birthday on June 7 sparked a new wave of calls from politicians and Lebanese to reinstate the death penalty. 3 days later, 17 families of murder victims in Lebanon that made headlines in local media took to Martyrs' Square in Downtown Beirut to demand justice for their lost relatives; some were adamant about bringing back the death penalty.

Among the most vocal was the family of George al-Rif, who was beaten and stabbed in Beirut's Gemmayzeh neighborhood in broad daylight 2 years ago. During a demonstration in July 2015, his wife and children demanded that the man who killed him, Tarek Yatim, be sentenced to death.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk has been the most senior politician to voice support for the death penalty following the murder of Hamoush. He told Hamoush's father after paying his respects to his family that he hopes "that the death penalty is implemented again and that it becomes a lesson to all others."

Machnouk told the media following the visit that he would discuss the matter with President Michel Aoun, and that he knows Prime Minister Saad Hariri's view on the matter.

Nicholas Sehnaoui, a former telecommunications minister and current vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement, echoed Machnouk's words on his Twitter account.

"In light of all the crimes happening around us, we must ask the judiciary to speed prosecutions and intensify punishments, leading to returning the implementation of the death penalty," he said.

The death penalty, while legal in Lebanon, has been under a moratorium since 2004.

Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, also of the Free Patriotic Movement, have not expressed their views on the matter.

Other Lebanese politicians have looked to the death penalty as a way to deter crime.

"I think it [the death penalty] is a deterrent," Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya MP Imad Hout told The Daily Star. "I am all for it, but with lots of regulations and conditions to make sure it is [effective] as a deterrent."

Future Movement MP Ammar Houri refused to comment on the matter when The Daily Star reached out to him.

However, an adviser to MP Bahia Hariri said that the Sidon MP does support the death penalty, though the Future Movement as a whole does not have a position on the issue yet.

"Bahia Hariri considers restoring the death penalty as a deterrent [to crime] ... to only be implemented in exceptional conditions," the adviser said, explaining that these cases must be "extreme" and that "the [nature of the] crimes should be taken into consideration."

"We want to solve the problems from the root," he added. "We don't want this to become a regularly implemented policy."

However, the adviser said that once the Future Movement takes an official stance on the matter, Hariri will endorse the party's position.

The last public execution that took place in Lebanon was in 1998 in the public square of the coastal town of Tabarja, north of Beirut. Wisam al-Nabhan and Hasan Abu Jabal were hung for the murder of 2 siblings.

A video of the execution shows that it was botched. [Warning: Graphic content]

The executioner tried to push both men off the platform simultaneously - 1 with each hand - only to lose control of 1 man who stumbled, choking before he was finally pushed from the platform.

A sister of the 2 murder victims told Death Penalty Lebanon in the video, "Believe me, I was disturbed the way I was disturbed before, when they [her siblings] [died]."

"The way my siblings [died], I saw it again with my own eyes," she said. "I saw how they were in pain, and felt the same feelings [watching the execution]."

Some politicians remain firm on their opposition to the death penalty, despite the surge in reported crimes, including the head of Parliament's Human Rights Committee, MP Michel Musa.

"There is a security problem - there are many murders - and the general public sees this as a huge issue," the Liberation and Development bloc MP said. "All studies show worldwide that execution has not prevented murder.

"There is information that needs to be revisited in schools, politics and the community," he said. "The judiciary needs to provide a harsh punishment for those who murder - for example a life sentence, as it's within the law."

Musa added that his position on the death penalty is his personal view, and does not represent Parliament's Human Rights Committee or the Liberation and Development bloc, which is headed by Speaker Nabih Berri.

"Nobody on the Human Rights Committee should be supportive of the death penalty," Musa said.

Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra also expressed his disdain for the death penalty.

"God gives life, and he takes it," Zahra said. "It's not up to us, regardless of the crime."

"People react quickly [to crimes] and call for hanging the perpetrators, but who said that hanging people will deter crime?" he added.

Zahra said that his position, along with that of the Lebanese Forces, is to "prevent crime through implementing the law and mobilizing the judiciary."

"We can't talk about how modern we [Lebanese] are if we take steps back like reinstating the death penalty," he said. "Perhaps security forces and the Lebanese Army are prioritizing counterterrorism - and rightly so - but this is perhaps a sign that we need to also focus on organized crime, drug dealing and so on."

Human rights organizations in Lebanon have been outspoken in expressing their concern over calls to reinstate the death penalty, especially from Machnouk.

George Ghali, programs manager of local human rights organization Alef, said that calls for the death penalty are tied to the public's frustration due to "corruption and lack of the rule of law."

"If the death penalty would really solve the issue of crime, then crime would have ended in ancient Mesopotamia under Hammurabi," he said.

Ghali said that "proper investigations need to take place after a crime" and that crime prevention will happen once people see a proactive security apparatus that holds both criminals and law enforcement personnel accountable for their actions under the law."

He also called on prosecutors to be more proactive, adding that he takes politicians' positions with a grain of salt because they have an agenda based on their respective constituencies and political parties.

Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Bassam Khawaja urged Lebanon to not "tarnish" its human rights record by reinstating the death penalty.

"It's understandable that people may feel that the death penalty could be a magical solution to end crime, but evidence proves otherwise," Khawaja said.

"If people don't trust the government and courts to hold people accountable, then why would we trust the same body to accurately decide who should live and who should die?"

"In a more sophisticated court system, such as in the United States, [there are] over 150 cases of people sentenced to death [who were] then later found not guilty and removed from death row," he added. "There are suspicions that innocent people have been executed."

In June, Machnouk said that he expects backlash from opponents of the death penalty, but is not fazed by the criticism.

"I know we would have European, Western or even international opposition," the interior minister said. "But we have a situation of deranged people carrying weapons."

Source: The Daily Star, July 8, 2017

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