Beirut Criminal Court: No Punishment for Victims of Human Trafficking

2018-03-21    |   

Beirut Criminal Court: No Punishment for Victims of Human Trafficking

On November 27, 2017, the Beirut Criminal Court issued a ruling that refrained from punishing a woman whose husband forced her to engage in prostitution. This was the first judicial ruling The Legal Agenda has observed that has exempted a victim of sexual exploitation from punishment.[1] The ruling indicates a change in the way that Lebanese courts are approaching the concept of criminal intent for women exploited through prostitution, following the issuance of the 2011 Anti-Trafficking Law. Although the victim was exempted from punishment, the court only came to this conclusion after she had been tried alongside her husband, who had profited from her exploitation. This contradicts the approach taken in the prosecution of the Chez Maurice network, whereby the women who were trafficking victims were not put on trial in the first place.

The Details of the Case

According to the official version of events in the court’s ruling, the case began in 2014. On Hamra Street, a man in his forties severely beat a woman in her twenties, and fled when he was seen by security forces. The woman took refuge in the police station, where she filed a complaint against the man for striking and injuring her. She also stated that the man was her husband, and that he had forced her to work as a prostitute.

The Lebanese wife gave detailed testimony about the methods that her Lebanese husband had forced her to perform sexual services in exchange for money: first, he refused to announce their marriage publicly or register the marriage contract (in our observations, we have identified this as a method used in many cases of sexual exploitation). Two months into the marriage, he demanded – citing their poor financial situation – that she have sex with clients, something she had never done before. If she refused his demands, he would beat her violently, give her electric shocks, and threaten her with a pistol. He kept her captive in the house and kept her identity papers and passport from her, so she could not leave. He also forced her to take cocaine, to which she became addicted.

She explained that her husband profited from her exploitation. He had taken her to cafes in Beirut (Bay Rock in Raouche and Starbucks in Hamra) in order to procure clients, and took US$100 in exchange for every hour that she had sex with clients. He also sent her to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for over a month, where a friend of his made her work as a prostitute. In exchange, her husband received US$15,000.

When arrested, the husband denied everything his wife had claimed, including the fact that they were married. He said that he had left no sin uncommitted but that he had not forced his wife to engage in prostitution. He later claimed she was his wife and that she had fabricated her complaint because she had seen him with his ex-wife in Hamra Street. The court, however, was convinced by the wife’s testimony and photographs of the stamps on her passport, as well as the presumption that the husband had fled when he did not appear in court. The court also based its decision on the husband’s prior record: he had spent more than twenty years in prison before meeting his wife.

Three years after the case was first opened, the court ruled that the wife had been forced into prostitution. The court convicted the husband, in absentia, of human trafficking (Article 586 of the Penal Code) with a sentence of ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of LL200 million (US$132 thousand). He was also stripped of his civil rights, and his assets were frozen. The court also ruled to exempt the wife from punishment for engaging in prostitution (Article 523 of the Penal Code) on the basis of Article 586 (6) of the Penal Code, which was one of the articles added to the code in accordance with the 2011 Anti-Trafficking Law.[2]

Sexual Exploitation Before 2011: Exploitation Nobody Wants to See

Before the 2011 Anti-Trafficking Law was issued, Lebanese courts were solely concerned with the parties playing direct and visible roles in prostitution (i.e. who engaged in it and who profited). Questions of exploitation and power relations between women accused of prostitution and their procurers and customers were almost entirely absent from this approach.

In a legal study of the cases of 228 women convicted of committing clandestine prostitution between 2005 and 2011, we found that the Lebanese courts penalized all women charged with this offense (with the exception of 21 women who were not convicted due to insufficient evidence or cases that were dropped because time had lapsed).[3] A review of these judicial rulings revealed that the degree of a woman’s criminal intent was not examined in any of the cases. Nor had they taken into account the physical or mental coercion these women had faced, including coercion through violence, extortion, and the abuse of marital authority. These factors could have resulted in treating these women as victims of human trafficking who had been forced to commit a crime, which would have made them exempt from punishment according to Article 227 of the penal code.

Sexual Exploitation After 2011: Victims Still Put on Trial, Despite a Change in Law

When the human trafficking law was issued in 2011, Article 586 (6) was added to the Penal Code. This article exempts a victim of human trafficking from punishment when it is proven that they were forced to commit acts punishable by law. This has led to a strengthening of legal protections for victims, particularly as it requires authorities to consider the nature of power relations between trafficking victims and procurers.

Despite changes to the law, however, victims have remained in a legally tenuous position, even in cases when their status as victims of human trafficking has been established. When the legislation was first issued, The Legal Agenda expressed concerns about the absence of the victim from the considerations of legislators. The law was written as a result of external, particularly US, pressure without any consideration of the nature of injustices and exploitation that were actually occurring in Lebanon. There was no attempt to guarantee that the law was compatible with previously existing laws either, especially those connected to prostitution. In light of the continued criminalization of prostitution, the change in the law raises a basic question: when is a woman considered a criminal for engaging in prostitution, and when is she considered a victim of human trafficking and therefore exempt from punishment? Procedurally speaking, when is she treated as a defendant, and when is she treated as a plaintiff or a witness against the person who benefitted from her exploitation?

According to the law, the mere fact that someone is a victim of human trafficking is not sufficient reason not to prosecute: rather, victims of human trafficking must prove that they were forced to commit crimes connected with their trafficking, such as practicing prostitution. Victims remain subject to prosecution; that is, they can be arrested, charged, and tried. In this case for example, the wife’s immunity from punishment was granted after she had been detained for a day, based on an arrest warrant that had been issued in absentia, and later released. She had also been subjected to two years of investigations by an investigative judge and an indictment division, and a year-long trial before a criminal court, where she was questioned as a defendant multiple times.

By comparison, in the case of the Chez Maurice human trafficking network, which shocked public opinion, none of the victims were detained or prosecuted when the network was exposed in 2016. Instead, measures were taken to protect them, in cooperation with a civil society organization (shelter, legal, psychological and social support). Some of them have made personal claims against their traffickers, and their case is still pending in the Mount Lebanon criminal court. Their case was a precedent in terms of judicial authorities acknowledging the need to guarantee legal protection for victims of human trafficking, rather than put them on trial.

But the treatment of the victims in the Chez Maurice case remains an exception, not the rule. The findings of The Legal Agenda’s Survey of Cases of Human Trafficking in Criminal Courts in Beirut and Baabda in 2016-2017 confirms this: in cases connected to sexual exploitation, we found that women practicing prostitution were prosecuted in 12 of 16 cases. And they were prosecuted in joint trials alongside procurers charged with human trafficking, not with facilitating or benefitting from prostitution. Most of these women were arrested for periods ranging from a day to three months, including those for whom arrest warrants had been issued in absentia.

This meant one of two things. Either authorities found signs of sexual exploitation and therefore filed more serious charges against the procurers (i.e. the felony of human trafficking rather than the misdemeanor of facilitating or benefitting from prostitution) while refraining from protecting victims (charging them as a result of their exploitation rather than exempting them from prosecution and taking protective measures). Or, authorities found no signs of exploitation, and charged the woman with prostitution while accusing the procurers of human trafficking. In these cases, the filing of more serious charges against the procurers triggered different procedures than the less serious offenses in terms of investigative procedures, the court where the case was tried, duration of arrest and severity of sentencing.

As for the four cases in which the victims were not prosecuted, the victims appeared in those cases as plaintiffs or as witnesses, or they remained anonymous. The Chez Maurice case was among these. When it comes to human trafficking cases that are not related to sexual exploitation, such as the exploitation of children through begging or forced labor (18 cases), we found that none of the victims were subject to trial for crimes related to their exploitation.

The Beirut criminal court’s decision to exculpate the wife who was forced to engage in prostitution affirms the need for judicial practice to shift from a disciplinary approach to a protective one in cases involving human trafficking and sexual exploitation. This requires improved mechanisms for recognizing victims from the very start of criminal investigations, and exempting them not only from punishment but from being put on trial in the first place. Rather than tried alongside those who have exploited them, victims must be empowered to bring a case against those persons.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Keywords: Prostitution, Exploitation, Forced Labour, Lebanon, Human Trafficking, Chez Maurice

[1] Beirut Criminal Court, under the presidency of Sami Sedki and judges Rabbi Maalouf and Lama Ayoub, Ruling No. 641 on November 27, 2017.

[2] Although the ruling was based on the standard of compulsion specified in Article 586 (6), it referenced Article 586 (8), which exempts from punishment a person who informs authorities of human trafficking crimes, and provides them with information contributing to the exposure of the crime or to the arrest of those who committed it. This was most likely a clerical error resulting in the wrong criminal statute being recorded.

[3] Nizar Saghieh and Ghida Frangieh, “Is Prostitution a Moral Crime or a Crime of Exploitation?,” a legal analysis of 228 cases of clandestine prostitution, Kafa: Enough Violence and Exploitation, 2013.

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