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The "committee of examination" that was chosen by the government on Sunday to investigate the Lebanese war is a recent creation. It was established according to the 2001 Government Law which addressed a number of factors not included in the Basic Law: Government.
According to Section 8a of the law, any minister or group of ministers, including the prime minister, may appoint a committee to examine "a subject or given incident within the sphere of his responsibility." This kind of committee is meant to deal with matters of lesser importance than those dealt with by a state commission of inquiry, which, according to the 1968 Investigations Committee Law, is established to deal with "a matter of vital public importance." The most crucial institutional difference between the two committees is that in the case of a state commission of inquiry, it is the president of the Supreme Court who appoints the head of the committee and its members. The head of the committee must be a Supreme Court justice or district court judge, or anyone who held one of these positions and has since retired.
The Government Law does not place any restrictions on who the minister may appoint to head a committee of examination. All it says is that if the minister appoints a retired judge of any court level, including the magistrate's court, the judge may, with the permission of the justice minister, assume some of the prerogatives of a state commission of inquiry.
In the case of the examination committee, the minister appoints all the members of the committee and not just its head. The law does not specify who is eligible for membership.
The prerogatives of the state commission of inquiry that the government examination committee will receive if it is headed by a judge, and if the justice minister approves, include the right to repeatedly summon witnesses to testify, order them to provide documents and other items and to take an oath to tell the truth and the power to enforce these prerogatives. Any witness who refuses to obey a summons, provide documents, swear to tell the truth or answer questions, is liable to a fine or up to two years in jail.
One right granted to a state commission of inquiry that is not granted to a government examination committee is the right to issue search warrants.
Witnesses in government examination committees have the same rights granted to witnesses before a state commission of inquiry. The testimony or information gathered by the examination committee may not be used against the witness in a court of law and the final report of the committee cannot be used as evidence against a witness on trial.
Another major difference between a state commission of inquiry and a government examination committee is the fact that the latter presents the report of its findings to the minister or ministers who appointed it, and he/she, subsequently, must submit it to the cabinet. However, the law does not stipulate that all or any of the report must be released to the public.
According to the Investigations Committee Law, the "state commission of investigation will make its report public soon after presenting it to the government." The commission may decide to withhold some or all of the report if it believes the information would threaten state security.
Another section of the law calls for the commission to hold its hearings in public. There is no such provision regarding the government examination committee, which, therefore, may hold all of its meetings behind closed doors without an explanation.