Lebanon judiciary languishes due to lack of independence

Judges’ salaries have plummeted as a result of the economic crisis, leading to the interference of the political class in courts.

 A view shows the exterior of Lebanon's Electricity Company and residential buildings during sunset in Beirut, Lebanon November 19, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/ISSAM ABDALLAH)
A view shows the exterior of Lebanon's Electricity Company and residential buildings during sunset in Beirut, Lebanon November 19, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/ISSAM ABDALLAH)

When Suhail Abboud addressed a graduation ceremony for judges at Beirut’s courthouse last month, his speech confirmed what everyone else has been suffering for years. The head of Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council decried political meddling in the judiciary and called for a “revolution” in the country’s courts to counter the lack of independence of Lebanon’s judiciary. 

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“The judicial situation is difficult and delicate,” he said in the remarks, which were televised. “Several factors have led to this, including the lack of a law that enshrines the independence of the judiciary, and the determination of all factions and sides and political parties to take control of the judiciary,” Abboud said at the November 18 ceremony. 

Lebanon’s judiciary has been one of the many victims of the financial collapse that the country has been suffering under for the past three years. According to the World Bank, the Mediterranean state is going through one of the worst economic crises since the 1850s. Three out of four people in Lebanon have been pushed into poverty, according to data from the United Nations. Many Lebanese, including lawyers and judges, have found themselves leaving the country, saying that they are not allowed to live and work in dignity. 

Faysal Makki is the chair of the Lebanese Judges Association. As a judge, he earned $4,000 dollars a month in 2019. Now, his monthly salary is only worth $50.  

“With $50 no one can live without minimum requirement. In courts and justice palaces, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have water, there are no bathrooms, no papers, no stationary, and we have to pay for everything in order for the clerks and judges to work,” he told The Media Line.

 Lawmakers gather in parliament in Beirut, Lebanon October 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR) Lawmakers gather in parliament in Beirut, Lebanon October 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)

Three years later, the situation in the public sector has not improved, but just has gotten worse.

“With just $50, you cannot survive for five days,” Makki said. “This is affecting the judges’ lives and their personal survival. The minimum requirements are absent,” he explained. 

That is why many judges are not working anymore.

Since August, an ongoing strike has forced most of Lebanon’s judges to suspend all judicial work. They are demanding a pay raise, better working conditions and guarantees of judicial independence. 

The strike has had an impact on Lebanon’s citizens since many courts are closed. Citizens can’t pay traffic tickets, hundreds have been left in detention awaiting hearings, and the myriad cases of bank depositors suing to access their life savings have been suspended. It also has left victims of domestic violence unable to get restraining orders against abusive partners.

“I believe that the total neglect of the sector by the political class is intentional in order to make it easy to interfere more in the judiciary,” Makki told The Media Line. “This negligence was present even before the economic crisis but we were able to pay for the material that was missing,” he said. The lack of “financial independence” also is having an impact on the work of judges and clerks on a daily basis.

Even though Lebanon’s constitution recognizes an independent judiciary, the laws that support it are the main obstacles to liberty in the courts. For years, the legislation that is supposed to strengthen judicial independence has been batted back and forth between the government and the parliament but has not been authorized. The political class does not want to lose control of its power to name judges to positions it deems important.

Faced with the lack of independence of the judiciary in Lebanon, a group of citizens, most of them living abroad, decided to create an organization to get justice for some key cases through more creative paths.

 Swiss-Lebanese lawyer Zena Wakin is part of the initiative, known as Accountability Now.

“How can we get justice in Lebanon when the judiciary is muzzled?,” she asked rhetorically. 

“Justice in Lebanon is going nowhere. The proceedings have been totally sabotaged and they are totally suspended, so we have to find inventive ways to circumvent the judiciary in Lebanon,” Wakin told The Media Line.

“Justice in Lebanon is going nowhere. The proceedings have been totally sabotaged and they are totally suspended, so we have to find inventive ways to circumvent the judiciary in Lebanon.”

Zena Wakin

Beirut port explosion

One of the most controversial cases has been the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed at least 215 people. More than two years after the man-made tragedy, no one has been held accountable or even tried for it. The political class has been meddling and interfering to prevent the investigation by Judge Tarek Bitar, the second judge appointed to investigate the case, from continuing.

Some politicians have refused to attend when called for hearings. Others are blocking the nomination of new judges to the court needed to allow Bitar to continue his work. Meanwhile, throughout Lebanese society, most people agree that it is important that the investigation take place for the future of the country itself.

“There is no independent judiciary without activating the work of the courts and prosecution, and without completing the investigation into the Beirut port explosion,” Abboud told the newly minted judges last month. 

In different forums, judges have been communicating the urgent need for changes. “The lack of independence is a major problem, a constitutional problem that cannot be resolved unless we have a new and real law on the independence regarding the appointment of judges and their rotation,” Makki told The Media Line.

He has a clear idea about what an ideal judiciary should be. “Judges must be appointed without the interference of any other power or any other person, and solely based on objective criteria such as their qualifications and not their affiliation,” he stated. 

“This is important not just for the judges, but for the society and its citizens in order to make them more immune to interference,” Makki concluded.