(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Trial of human rights defender postponed

The trial of a prominent human rights lawyer due to appear in a Beirut court earlier this week has been adjourned to 20 March due to procedural errors.

Muhammad Moghraby was accused of "slandering the army establishment and its officers" after delivering a speech to a European Parliament delegation in Belgium on 4 November 2003. In the speech, Moghraby criticised Lebanon’s military-court system and the inadequate legal training provided to judges.

He also denounced the alleged ill-treatment and torture employed by military courts to extract confessions from suspects.

“Moghraby was not legally summoned,” said his lawyer, Fouad Sfeir. “They [the authorities] did not use legal procedures."

Sfeir explained that the prosecution had wrongly accused Moghraby of committing the alleged “crime" on Lebanese territory. "They don't even know what they are talking about," the lawyer said.

Under Lebanese law, any attempt to undermine the respect due to the nation and its institutions is a crime. Human rights activists, however, say that security forces use the law to conduct arbitrary arrests.

After the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005 after 30 years of control over Lebanon, many hoped that national institutions would become more democratic.

"But it’s still the same old mentality," complained Sfeir. "From a political point of view, no change has happened in these institutions – military or judicial."

If found guilty, Moghraby could be sentenced with up to three years' imprisonment.

Local and international human rights groups, meanwhile, have called for the government to drop the charges.

In a statement issued last week, human rights watchdog Amnesty International defended Moghraby, saying he was simply exercising his right to freedom of expression. The organisation pointed out that such freedoms were guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lebanon is a party.

It also stated its concern that the case against Moghraby comes within “a pattern of harassment” against him, possibly related to his work in defence of human rights.

"It’s not the first time they tried to prosecute me; it might be something like the ninth," said Moghraby.

No comments on the case have been available from the government.

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