During the eight weeks we’ve spent in Lebanon, we’ve only begun to witness the state of limbo that Palestinians experience in regard to their rights, or lack thereof, in Lebanon. Our friends at ULYP are very open about the fact that our Palestinian students don’t have the same employment opportunities as their Lebanese counterparts, all of whom sit in the same classroom doing the same studies. Palestinian lack of civil rights and ambiguous status in Lebanon leads to abuse and unfairness across the board. Not only is this situation unfair on a day-to-day basis, but it also puts Palestinian refugees at a disadvantage if they have to interact with the criminal justice system for any reason.
To be clear, there are a lot of reasons that any person would have to interact with the criminal justice system, not just because they’re guilty of a crime. Working at the Duke Innocence Project has confirmed my belief in the fact that any criminal justice system will be prone to succumbing to wrongful convictions, and this is so often more common for marginalized groups. Further, I believe that even if someone has made a mistake they are still entitled to a defense and a fair judgment. This is not a defense of wrong or immoral values; it is simply an expression of the belief that people deserve a fair and proper trial when facing an accusation. This is essential to even have a chance of finding justice, preserving human rights, and ensuring innocent people don’t go to jail. This value is written into multiple country’s legal policies as well as international law. For multiple reasons, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has made a fair interaction with the criminal justice system almost impossible to achieve.
Lebanese law treats Palestinians as a “special category of foreigners” (Suleiman, 2016). Palestinians are limited in where and when they are allowed to travel, and these limitations are often subject to fluctuations with the political climate. They are excluded from a list of jobs that is created and revised yearly by the Minister of Labor in conjunction with current needs arising in the Lebanese labor market. They can’t attend public school in Lebanon or own property. Perhaps most detrimental to their wellbeing, Palestinians don’t have the right to vote in Lebanon or hold political office, so they have no say in the policies that govern their lives and often determine their destiny (Haddad, 2000). These policies not only publically label Palestinians as second-class citizens (to say it nicely), but also create huge economic obstacles. Lebanon currently has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in poverty, with two out of three living on less than $6 per day (“Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2012). Of course individual Palestinians all have different experiences, and we have met some incredible people who have overcome unimaginable barriers and achieved success in the Lebanese community; still, being Palestinian automatically subjects you to confines imposed by the Lebanese government.
The targeting of Palestinians in criminal justice systems is not solely an issue in Lebanon. In a 2005 book by Lisa Hajjar, the author argues that the Israeli military court system is a political and legal tool used to target and oppress Palestinians (Hajjar, 2005). She even goes so far as to say, “The military court system is an institutional centerpiece of the Israeli stat’s apparatus of rule over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Palestinians facing prosecution in Israeli military courts often aren’t given the rights guaranteed by international law, including the right to counsel (Omer-Man, 2016). Israeli indigent defendants are regularly provided state-funded public defenders, but Palestinians are not.
While written policies in Lebanon create discrimination, unwritten practices also play a role in creating injustice for Palestinian refugees facing conviction in a Lebanese criminal court. Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut, stated that “Lebanon is a country governed by unwritten law and the administration of written law often takes place in an arbitrary manner” (“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2014). This applies directly to the legal system.
Lebanese law does not explicitly inhibit refugee access to legal representation in the criminal justice system, but the economic policies that hinder Palestinians make it almost impossible for many of them to afford a lawyer if they need one (“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2014). If money is not an issue, there is also the problem that proper representation and fair treatment in the Lebanese legal system often depends on having connections. As one article said, “If someone is in need of protection, he cannot depend on the judicial system without making use of his network and connections” (“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2014). Palestinians are generally in a weaker position than Lebanese nationals when it comes to getting protection and having connections. Lastly, even with money and connections, a Palestinian is at a disadvantage. According to the Human Development Center, “Palestinians are the object of bad press and are often singled out in the media as criminals and put in connection with certain issues.” The majority of Lebanese surveyed in a 2000 survey reported thinking of Palestinians as an impetus for destabilization in Lebanon that could upset the balance of religious sects (Haddad, 2000). This bias, whether explicit or implicit, affects Palestinian experience with the criminal justice system.
Palestinians often suffer at the hands of prosecutors in the Lebanese criminal justice system (“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2014). Similar to the American system, prosecutors have incredible power in shaping the outcome of a case. The amount of time that a defendant spends in jail awaiting trial is affected both by the connections he/she has and also by prosecutorial decisions. According to Pursue, a company focused on research and consulting in relation to Palestinian rights in Lebanon, there are a number of Palestinian refugees in jail in Lebanon awaiting trial for events that occurred in the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007. The maximum sentence they could get if put on trial is shorter than the number of years they have already spent in jail. Further, in many cases, prosecutors can use the ambiguity of the legal status of Palestinians as a “refugee” or a “foreigner” to manipulate the case in favor of the state and against the defendant. As the Palestinian Human Rights Organization states, “In the situation where the state wishes to deprive Palestinians of a privilege, they are treated as foreigners, and when the state wishes to degrade the rights of Palestinians, they are treated as refugees.”
This issue of discrimination due to the immense power of prosecutors is an issue that is prevalent in the United States as well. In Lebanon, the ambiguity of Palestinian “status” in the eyes of Lebanese law allows the prosecutor to be as punitive as he or she wants. In the United States, while all American citizens are purported to have the same unalienable rights, American prosecutors are given so much power with no supervision that there is inevitably bias between different cases and different defendants. There is evidence that prosecutorial power also contributes to systematic bias against minority groups. I think this shows how important policy research and analysis is. Lebanon’s policies suppressing Palestinians have created discrimination in the criminal justice system, but this discrimination exists in the American legal system as well even though the United States preaches equality of all people under the law.
The struggle for Palestinian defendants in the Lebanese legal system is only exacerbated by the fact that Palestinians aren’t Lebanese citizens, so while the policies affect them, they are not eligible to vote for changes. This is a recipe for abuse. Politicians are not dependent on Palestinian votes, and thus their complaints often fall on deaf ears. An example of this is that according to Lebanese law, children under 18-years-old are required to have a guardian present if placed under arrest, but this is not a requirement for Palestinian children (“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” 2014). Without the voice of Palestinians in policy-making, legislation is not likely to change; as Rafik Hariri famously quoted in 2003, “Lebanon will never, ever integrate Palestinians.”
Knudsen, Are. “The Law, the Loss and the Lives of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.” CHR Michelsen Institute (2007). Web. 2 Aug. 2016. .
Suleiman, Jaber. “Marginalised Community: The Case of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.” Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty (2006). Web. 2 Aug. 2016. .
Haddad, Simon. “The Palestinian Predicament in Lebanon.” Middle East Quarterly 7.3 (2000). Web. 2 Aug. 2016. .
Omer-Man, Emily Schaeffer. “Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Dual Criminal Justice System in the West Bank.” Palestine-Israel Journal 21.3 (2016). Web. 2 Aug. 2016. .
“Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.” Anera Reports on the Ground in the Middle East 3 (2012). Web. 2 Aug. 2016. .
“Stateless Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.” Danish Immigration Service (2014). Web. 2 Aug. 2016.
Hajjar, Lisa. Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza. London: University of California Press, 2005. Print.