Trying Adam Chamseddine: Prosecution Instead of Praise
The military court issued a three-month jail sentence in absentia against journalists Adam Chamseddine and Fidaa Itani over statements they posted on social media. The sentence that was issued on 7 March 2019 by single military judge in Mount Lebanon, Brigadier General Antoine Halabi, condemned these statements on the grounds that they defamed the reputation of State Security. This incident is problematic as it indicates that Lebanon has officially joined the club of countries where free speech results in long-term prison sentences.
The incident becomes all the more serious when we dig deeper, specifically into the details related to Chamseddine. The Legal Agenda took a closer look at the details and found that not only did his statement not merit prosecution, but it deserved to be commended. It is clear that Chamseddine’s intention was to defend a vulnerable person arbitrarily detained, in the face of a powerful authority that exploited his weakness to promote itself and strengthen its influence. Thus, Chamseddine showed exceptional gallantry (defending a person who has no power to defend himself) against an influential power that could be fairly described as villainous.
Notwithstanding the seriousness of referring this case to the military court, the sentence dangerously reflects the reversal of the social values of freedom of expression by punishing an act of “gallantry” (which has long been at the forefront of our values). Moreover, such sentences reinforce conduct that has often been thoroughly denounced from a social perspective.
The original issue began 18 October 2018 when State Security Service arrested a man running a tattoo parlor and his assistant. The arrest happened on the basis of an anonymous letter claiming that the tattooist and his assistant, both of whom are homosexual and HIV-positive, could infect customers via the needles they were using to tattoo clients.
The two men were detained for over 10 days in complete isolation, unable to contact any acquaintances, relatives or lawyers. The case and its details were not disclosed until October 29 (12 days after they were arrested), when it was addressed on the program: “Hawa al-Hurriya” [Air of Freedom] on Lebanese television channel LBC. Following this program, the State Security Directorate issued its first statement on the case, naming the two individuals and their descriptions, and calling on all clients of the tattoo parlor to get tested for AIDS. The two men had to wait until 5 November before the Beirut Indictment Division issued a decision to release them, after it had verified that no cases of AIDS had been reported as a result of their tattoo work to date, leaving no justification for their arrest. In a previous article, The Legal Agenda did not rule out that the anonymous letter was sent for purely vindictive or personal intentions, and that State Security reacted swiftly to it through a series of violations against said person and his assistant.
It should be noted that Chamseddine’s statement was posted after LBC brought the case to light on television and the State Security Directorate’s follow-up statement was made, but before the decision of the Indictment Division was issued. Thus, it was posted when the preliminary investigations into the two men were being published, stigmatizing them while they were arbitrarily detained without being able to defend themselves. The statement included clear criticism of the series of offenses committed in this case, most importantly State Security’s efforts to promote its image as a savior of society from the dangers surrounding it. The statement read: “A guy has been thrown in jail by State Security for 12 days now, and his file still hasn’t been referred to Public Prosecution up until this moment. His only crime is that he was working in a profession he’s good at and in which he did not think his illness was a liability. Meanwhile, some security officers are bracing themselves for a rank promotion”. It should be noted that Chamseddine mentioned the case of Ziad Itani, [who was detained on claims of spying for Israel and later released with no charges]. Itani’s case witnessed serious violations, resulting in a scandal that the Lebanese public still has not forgotten.
Accordingly, Chamseddine’s statement itself contained its own justifications, in view of the following three considerations:
Most of its claims about the violations committed by State Security are true. In addition to the fact that leaking the preliminary investigations undeniably constitutes a violation of the law and a serious violation of the presumption of innocence, not to mention the detention exceeding the permitted period (more than 12 days before the file was referred to Public Prosecution when law prohibits arrest for more than 48 hours renewable once), the Indictment Division’s decision confirmed that the arrest was unjustified, especially in this situation, as there was no evidence that any of the tattoo parlor clients got infected. It is then undeniable that the arrest was made exactly for the reason Chamseddine stated: that the man had AIDS and that he dared to work despite his disease. The veracity of the statement is a sufficient reason to exonerate Chamseddine from any penalty, pursuant to Article 387 of the Penal Code which states that defamation of a public official is justified as long as it is proven to be true.
The purpose of the statement was to defend a weak person who was openly abused, in contravention of the presumption of innocence, without being able to defend himself. Apart from the fact that he was detained for a period exceeding the permitted time, he was placed in complete isolation and prohibited from communicating with any of his acquaintances, relatives or his lawyer. The above statement reveals this, as Chamseddine denounced how a “seasoned journalist would disclose all the details of the investigation before he [the detained man] could even get the chance to see a lawyer”. As a result of leaking the preliminary investigations (which referred to him as ‘the Syrian’, ‘homosexual’, and ‘AIDS-infected’), the man has been subjected to stigma, even to a social phobia that would prevent him from speaking out. What further confirms this is that no one would listen to him even after his release.
Chamseddine compared this case with that of Ziad Itani. The comparison here is that State Security in the latter’s case intentionally leaked the investigations – including Itani's alleged confessions – to journalists who raced to publish them. All this happened while Itani was secluded in some public security cell for over two weeks. The public was shocked and surprised when it was revealed that everything that had been published was false and that the accusation against Itani was merely fabricated for vindictive reasons. While Itani’s case was supposed to precipitate a major shake-up in media and security [practices], the case of the tattoo artist proved that the same mistakes were repeated in a way that confirms the total absence of the mechanisms of accountability and self-criticism in both institutions. This would give Chamseddine’s statement a double social function, making it the only accountability tool available in light of the dysfunctionality of institutional accountability.
Keywords: Adam Chamseddine, Ziad Itani, Homophobia, State Security Directorate