On October 4, the Judicial Inspection Authority (JIA) interviewed members of the Lebanese Judges Association’s board regarding a complaint that Minister of Justice Henry Khoury filed against the association based on the media statements it has issued since he took office and the participation of its president, Judge Faysal Makki, in a television program. The minister deemed that the association’s activity breaches judges’ duty of restraint, reflects politicization, and harms the judiciary’s interests. Previously, on 24 April 2023, the same minister issued two circulars rendering judges’ freedom to express themselves, participate in seminars, and communicate with parties outside the judiciary contingent on prior permission. The Independence of the Judiciary Coalition (IJC) previously warned of the gravity of these circulars.
Before delivering observations on this action, we must recall that the Lebanese Judges Association was established in 2018 following approximately 12 years of judicial struggle against the authority’s opposition to its inception. Since then, the association has constituted a space for building a pro-independence current within the judiciary and a platform for this current, as confirmed by the dozens of statements it has issued over the past years, including at the most difficult of stages.
The complaint raises great concern among the IJC’s members for several reasons:
It Infringes on Judges’ Freedom to Defend Their Independence
The minister’s choice to base his complaint against the association on the duty of restraint constitutes another expression of his understanding of this duty in line with his earlier circulars. This understanding is categorically incorrect. The duty of restraint aims to guarantee judges’ impartiality in the cases they examine, not limit – whether directly or indirectly – their freedom to voice their opinions on judicial reform, judicial independence and the laws and measures concerning it, or human rights issues in general.
Any other understanding of the duty of restraint renders it akin to a duty to remain silent, subjects judges’ constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to unjustified restrictions, and contradicts the principles of judicial independence enshrined by the UN General Assembly in 1983 and the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct. Making matters worse, the measure taken is aimed not at limiting the freedom of an individual judge but at limiting the freedom of an association and preventing it from issuing any statement. Hence, it is a twofold attack on freedom of expression and the freedom to form associations, along with judges’ right to defend themselves against hegemonic practices and interference.
It Is the Latest in a Series of Attacks on the Judiciary and Freedoms
The prosecution of the Lebanese Judges Association is part of an ongoing assault on the judiciary and public freedoms intended to fortify the system of impunity against any accountability. The restriction of judges’ freedoms back in April 2023 coincided with a restriction of lawyers’ freedoms threatening activist lawyers in March of the same year. Similarly, this complaint comes at the same time as successive prosecutions against several professional groups, including journalists, teachers, unionists, comedians, and auditors who expose corruption. It also comes at the same time as peculiar, newly established entities (such as Soldiers of God and Soldiers of Fayha) are being put into action to intimidate citizens, strike at the freedom to protest, and usurp public space, all while the authority neglects to take any action against them. Perhaps the gravest aspect of the latest attack is that it targets judges, the very people whom the Constitution vests with protecting rights and freedoms.
It Breaches the Duty to Ensure a Sound Environment for Judicial Work
This complaint is yet another measure that places negative influences on the judges’ work environment and disenchants them, on top of the interference and favoritism practices and the collapse of the purchasing power of their salaries. Instead of making the utmost effort to improve this work environment materially and morally and taking effective measures to preserve what remains of the judiciary, here is the minister of justice actively undermining the safeguards of judges’ independence in a manner that risks further resignations and disenchantment and threatens the entire justice system. Making the minister’s stance even more reprehensible is his lax attitude toward major coups that have afflicted the judiciary, particularly Cassation Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat’s coup against Judicial Council Investigator Tarek Bitar in the port blast case. Khoury refused to initiate any complaint against Oueidat, lending false legitimacy to the coup.
Hence, the IJC declares and demands the following: