Ignoring the Plight of Lebanon’s Foreign Domestic Workers: A Bengali Woman’s Abortion

2018-02-02    |   

Ignoring the Plight of Lebanon’s Foreign Domestic Workers: A Bengali Woman’s Abortion

On February 27, 2013, one of the Internal Security Forces’ detachments received a call about a Bengali woman who had be admitted to  a hospital’s emergency ward with severe internal bleeding. It quickly became apparent she had taken medicine to induce an abortion. This prompted an investigation into her and the young Bengali man who had brought her to hospital and paid for her treatment, in order to determine whether the abortion was voluntary and unassisted or whether it was forced. Two security organizations (the Internal Security Forces and the General Security) as well as the investigating judge took turns investigating. The single criminal judge then issued a ruling based on conflicting facts that, though these remain the “judicial truth”, raise major questions. Throughout these investigations, the “sponsor” who recruited the woman to Lebanon as a domestic worker, and whose home she left after one week, remained completely absent.

The Internal Security Forces’ Investigation

Once the detachment concerned was contacted, a patrol went to the hospital. While it could not take the worker’s statement at that time because of her health condition, it returned later to interview her and the Bengali man who came to pay the remaining costs of her treatment. The prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether the woman had been subjected to any harm. After ascertaining that the man understood and spoke Arabic, the police investigator took his statement. The statement indicated that the Bengali woman had phoned the Bengali man and asked him to take her to hospital because she was very ill. He did so and paid the hospital fees to save her life as an act of humanitarianism, for the two were merely friends. The statement also indicated that he borrowed the amount from his employer, and his brother later recouped it from the woman’s family in Bangladesh. The investigator then interviewed the worker without a translator, even though when asked she told him that she understood little Arabic. The recorded statement indicates that she had entered Lebanon five months earlier and left her job a week later to beome self-employed as a house cleaner. When asked about the pregnancy and abortion, she stated that she conceived with her husband before arriving and, because of her laborious work, took medicine that she had brought with her from Bangladesh to induce the abortion. She stated that the young man that brought her to hospital was a friend. Subsequently, the prosecutor ordered that a forensic doctor examine her. The doctor deemed that the conception probably occurred four months earlier and that her body showed no sign of beating or abuse. The Bengali man was then released in exchange for his residence permit, and the Bengali woman was arrested and referred to General Security on February 28, 2013.

General Security’s Investigation

On March 8, 2013, eight days after the worker was referred to General Security, the latter began investigating her. The report shows that initially, General Security merely asked her about her legal status in Lebanon and why she had not given her real name in the preliminary investigation. According to the report, she stated that she was illiterate, that she “ran away” from her sponsor’s home to work for herself “and rake in more money”, and that she withheld her real name for fear of arrest. When the prosecutor ordered General Security to further question her about the crime of abortion and whether she arrived in Lebanon pregnant or conceived in Lebanon, her statements were conflicting. She repeated her previous statement that she arrived in Lebanon pregnant by her husband, but when asked again, she stated that she formed a sexual relationship with her Bengali friend and took medicine that she obtained from an unnamed female Bengali friend in Lebanon, who had since left the country.

The report indicates that on April 3, 2013, approximately 28 days after interviewing the worker, General Security called the prosecutor to inform her of the outcome of its investigation. The prosecutor ordered General Security to summon the Bengali man to hear his story. This occurred three days later on April 6, 2013. His statement indicated that he met the arrestee “on the main road” and that he “was securing some housework for her”. On the other hand, he denied any prior knowledge of her home address, stating that he visited it for the first time the day he took her to hospital. In contrast to his statements to the Internal Security Forces, he said that he paid the hospital fee with his own money, denying any sexual relationship with the woman. Given the discrepancy between his statement and the arrestee’s statement, the prosecutor requested a meeting between the two. Following the meeting, the arrestee reaffirmed her statement that the young man was the father, while he admitted a sexual relationship with her but denied knowing that he had impregnated her. Subsequently, the prosecutor ordered that the Bengali man be released and the arrestee be referred to the Public Prosecution, which occurred two days later on April 8. Hence, General Security’s investigation took approximately 40 days, during which it refrained from investigating all of the following: the “sponsor” who had recruited the worker from abroad, the young Bengali man’s arrangement of work for her, or the identity of the Bengali friend who gave her the medicine for the abortion. These [neglected] inquiries were all pertinent and linked to General Security’s role of ensuring that the laws on foreigners in Lebanon are enforced.

The Charge and the Indictment

Following the investigations, on April 8 the prosecutor charged the Bengali woman with committing a voluntary abortion, thereby ruling out the possibility that other people played a role in the abortion. The prosecutor requested that the woman be detained in presentia and referred her to the investigating judge the same day. Conversely, the charge ignored the violation of the laws on foreigners in Lebanon, making no mention of them at all.

On April 11, 2013, the defendant appeared before the investigating judge. He merely asked her a single question about her opinion on the allegation that she “voluntarily gave herself an abortion”. She responded that she stands by her initial statement. Hence, on May 10, 2013, without any further questions, the investigating judge issued an indictment repeating the prosecutor’s characterization of the crime as a voluntary abortion. Remarkably, the decision, which was based on conflicting investigation reports, includes a singular narrative and makes no effort to resolve or explain the contradictions. It states,

It was found that the accused entered Lebanese territory five months earlier while pregnant as a result of her marriage in Bangladesh. However, because of her laborious work in Lebanon and her circumstances, she decided to give herself an abortion. She took medicine that she had brought with her from Bangladesh, which led to her abortion and severe bleeding.

Hence, according to the indictment, the conception occurred in Bangladesh, the medicine was imported from Bangladesh, and the Bengali defendant is the only person responsible for the abortion. The investigating judge seems to have wanted to rule out any Lebanese responsibility for the abortion. To this end, he ignored all the statements that contradict his narrative and suggest that the conception occurred in Lebanon or the defendant obtained the medicine from someone residing in Lebanon. On April 11, the investigating judge issued a decision to release the worker on a bail of LL500,000 [US$330], and the Indictment Division approved the decision the next day after dismissing the Public Prosecution’s appeal. Under the prevailing customs, the decision to release the Bengali woman (who lacks legal residency) would not result in her being set free once the bail is paid. Rather, it would trigger deportation procedures, which could not occur while she was under arrest. Hence, the worker was probably then deported, although her judicial file remains void of any information in this regard.

The Trial

On February 3, 2014, after approximately one year, the first hearing in the defendant’s trial occurred. The single criminal judge postponed the trial’s hearings four successive times because she could not be served. In the fifth hearing, he decided to try her in absentia after the summons was posted on the court’s notice board. On September 28, 2015, a ruling was issued convicting the defendant in absentia of the crime of voluntary abortion and fining her LL500,000 [US$330]. The ruling repeated the narrative recorded in the indictment even though it contradicts the investigation reports, as explained earlier. Furthermore, it took the form of a single-page, pre-prepared document with the blanks filled in.

Comments on the Investigation and Trial Procedures

Several comments must be made on the investigation and trial procedures:

The Duration of the Preliminary Investigation

The Internal Security Forces’ and General Security’s preliminary investigations took approximately 41 days, during which the defendant was kept under arrest, although the Internal Security Forces completed their investigation in a single day. Hence, the Judicial Police exceeded, with the Public Prosecution’s full knowledge, the legally permitted period for detaining a suspect during preliminary investigation (48 hours once renewable) by a factor of ten. Adding to the seriousness of this exceedance, the case was void of the most rudimentary justification. General Security took the defendant’s statement eight days after she arrived. Worse, General Security took approximately one month to inform the Public Prosecution of her statement and take its directions. Needless to say, exceeding the time limit in this manner, without it prompting any investigation, objection, or reprimand from the Public Prosecution, reflects a flexible approach to this essential safeguard of personal freedom found in the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Timeline of Events

February 27, 2013

Bengali woman enters hospital and is investigated by the Internal Security Forces

February 28, 2013

Referral to General Security

March 8, 2013

Beginning of investigation by General Security

April 3, 2013

Public Prosecution is contacted, and Bengali man is summoned for interview

April 6, 2013

Bengali man is interviewed, and Bengali woman is referred to Public Prosecution

April 8, 2013

Public Prosecution charges Bengali woman with voluntary abortion

April 8, 2013

Request is received by the investigating judge

Interviewing Foreigners Without a Translator

The security personnel and investigating judge took more than four statements from the Bengali woman without a translator. The Internal Security Forces recorded that when questioned, she said that she understood little Arabic, unlike the Bengali man, who stated that he understood and spoke Arabic. The expression attributed to the woman, in comparison to that attributed to the man, signifies that she is not proficient in Arabic and that it was frivolous to take her statements about the potentially complicated facts of her pregnancy, abandonment of work, and abortion, without a translator. Furthermore, the Internal Security Forces was the only body to question her and record her response in this regard; General Security and the investigating judge saw fit to take her statement without any such inquiry or clarification. This explains why General Security’s reports include expressions more in keeping with its understanding of matters than with the defendant’s words. For example, it mentioned that she “ran away” from her sponsor’s house to work for herself “to rake in more money”.

A Trial in Absentia Without Any Effort to Understand the Reason for Absence

As in many other cases pertaining to foreigners, the Bengali woman was tried in absentia. She had probably been deported after the decision to release her was issued. The chance that she obtained legal residency is minimal given General Security’s customary practice. In this regard, two observations must be made:

The single criminal judge scheduled the first trial hearing approximately eight months after receiving the case. While this delay stems from a practice of prioritizing the hearings of cases involving detained defendants by postponing other cases, judges usually ignore that issuing decisions to release foreign defendants most often results in them being kept detained until they are deported. Hence, these cases should be expedited so that the judge can hear the defendants before their deportation, i.e. before doing so becomes impossible.

The single criminal judge repeatedly postponed the hearings because the defendant could not be served. Ultimately, he decided to serve her by having the summons posted on the court’s notice board without taking the trouble to ask General Security about whether she had been deported. This behavior is part of a long-standing practice also based on ignoring realities and, specifically, General Security’s role in this area.

Subsequently, it was natural for this case to end the same way as thousands of similar cases, namely the trial of the worker in absentia. This outcome effectively marginalizes the judiciary’s role in scrutinizing the criminal responsibility attributed to the foreigners and deprives them of the right to appear before the judges examining their cases.

The Adoption of the Narrative That Conceals Any Potential Lebanese Responsibility

The statements recorded were attributed to only two people (the defendant and the Bengali man who brought her to hospital). They contained contradictory information about significant issues, such as the date of conception, the father of the aborted fetus, the medicine used in the abortion, the source of the money used to pay the hospital bill, and the relationship between the defendant and the person who paid it. Yet remarkably, the ruling reiterated the investigating judges’ narrative, which completely ruled out any potential Lebanese responsibility, without any effort to explain or understand the reasons for the contradiction. Accordingly, her pregnancy and her abortion occurred of her own volition and without any Lebanese assistance. In this area, the grounds of the ruling seemed more like a caricature embodying the discourse that evades any responsibility for the tragedies that afflict domestic workers in Lebanon. This matter is made even more objectionable by two things:

This narrative seems completely illogical. Does it make sense for the defendant to have brought medicine for the abortion with her from Bangladesh but to have then waited five months into her pregnancy before using it?

Accepting a narrative that contradicts what appeared in the investigations reveals a flagrant lack of investigation professionalism and raises many questions in a case that probably concealed very grave practices. Why did the defendant leave her employer’s home just one week after arriving there? Can that really be explained with her seeking to “rake in more money”? Or should she have been allowed to speak freely about it, especially as her stay with him coincided with the time of conception according to the medical report, and given that the Bengali man stated that he found her on the “main road”? Was it not necessary to inquire into the identity of the person who recruited her from abroad and, at the very least, to ask her about why she left his home? Assuming she left of her own accord “to rake in more money”, did she do so to work for herself or for an employment – or perhaps exploitation – network? The Bengali man’s statement indicated that he had assumed the task of finding her work. While the neglect of the former line of inquiry (the potential responsibility of the employer) can be explained on the basis of a desire to exclude Lebanese responsibility, the neglect of the latter (the possibility that she was employed in one capacity or another by networks that traffick female residents) reflects ignorance of the actions that constitute crimes of human trafficking and the nature of the networks based on it.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Inequalities, Discrimination and Marginalisation, Labor Rights and Unions, Lebanon

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *