Preconceptions Overshadow Sexual Exploitation

2018-10-13    |   

Preconceptions Overshadow Sexual Exploitation

This article is based on The Legal Agenda’s study of human trafficking court cases in 2016 and 2017.


Before the issuance of the anti-human trafficking law in 2011, the Lebanese courts were content with the apparent criminal liabilities women charged in cases of prostitution and equated them with those charged with benefiting from it, virtually ignoring the exploitation and power relations existing between the women and those exploiting them. This was confirmed by a study of judicial cases titled “Prostitution: A Moral Crime or a Crime of Exploitation?”[1] The point of this revealing title was that the courts usually deemed the woman practicing prostitution and the person exploiting her to be partners in a socially condemned moral offense, irrespective of the exploitative relationship between them.

While the adoption of this law heralded a shift toward distinguishing between these two “partners” and punishing the exploiter (or the person responsible for human trafficking) while protecting the exploited (frequently the victim) after exempting her from punishment, the work of the courts, particularly in human trafficking cases, reveals adverse trends that could negate this legislative accomplishment or strip it of many of its effects. This is particularly evident in two rulings issued by the criminal courts in Baabda and Beirut in 2017 and 2018. These rulings once more concealed the ties of exploitation behind a shroud of preconceptions that reformulate the relationship between exploiter and exploited as an immoral partnership.

Before detailing these two cases, I must point out that in them, the two women were subjected to joint trials with the five men and one woman accused of exploiting them. Ultimately, the court convicted the two women of the misdemeanor of clandestine prostitution (Article 523 of the Penal Code), whereas it acquitted the six human trafficking defendants of this felony (Article 586-1 of the Penal Code) for insufficient evidence or discharged them because the exploitation element of this felony was not fulfilled. Additionally, the adult victim was convicted of drug use (Article 127 of the Drugs Law) and failure to renew her residency (Article 36 of the Foreigners Law).


Case 1: A Palestinian Minor – Exploited or a Partner in Crime?

In the first case, the Palestinian minor charged with prostitution stated that she left her family’s home in Tripoli because she was abused and she was raped at the age of 13.[2] Upon arriving in Beirut, she met several people who coerced her into prostitution and exploited her. She did not fully identify two of her exploiters, but she named three Lebanese, who were charged with trafficking her. She stated that she met the first trafficking defendant in a nightclub. They had sex without any money changing hands, and he asked her to work in prostitution. He would buy her drugs from the money he collected from the clients. This man then “sold her and handed her over” to the second trafficking defendant, who owned a hotel where she practiced prostitution for his family’s benefit. The minor did not receive any of the money yielded by her prostitution while she stayed in the hotel as the family told her that the first trafficking defendant was the one receiving this money, a claim he denied. After a month and a half, the family kicked her out because she had no identity papers. She then worked for the third trafficking defendant, a woman, for three months. The third trafficking defendant provided her with customers, split the money evenly with her, and occasionally bought drugs for her. The first trafficking defendant, who was the only one detained during the trial, denied everything in the minor’s statement and denied knowing her. The second and third trafficking defendants were not heard because they could not be located.


Case 2: An Adult Recruited from Syria for the Purpose of Exploitation

In this case, the prostitution defendant, a Syrian woman, stated during her investigation that she came from Syria to Lebanon accompanied by her husband (the second trafficking defendant) and that he met a Lebanese man (the third trafficking defendant) and made an agreement with him for her to work for him as a prostitute in exchange for accommodation in his hotel in Mt. Lebanon’s district of Maameltein north of Beirut.[3] She said that her husband beat her, coerced her to practice prostitution, and split the earnings with the hotel owner.

After some time, her husband borrowed US$10,000 from the hotel owner and left for Syria, leaving her at the latter’s mercy. She was forced to work for him for five months to pay her husband’s debt. Thereafter, she left the hotel and ceased practicing prostitution.

She also stated that a Syrian man (the first trafficking defendant) was one of her clients and would supply her with drugs. He proposed that she work for him as a prostitute, but she declined because of his bad reputation recruiting girls from Syria and his ties to defendants in the case of the “Chez Maurice” ring. Her husband and the hotel owner denied everything in her statement. The husband stated that they had divorced, whereas the first trafficking defendant admitted that her husband would bring her to him for sex and collected the money from him directly.


Rejecting Victim Testimony

The first striking aspect of the two rulings in question is that they deemed the victim’s statement insufficient to incriminate those accused of human trafficking when not accompanied by other evidence.

To reach this conclusion, the Criminal Court in Baabda deemed that the defendant victim’s statement against one of those accused of trafficking her is a statement by a defendant against a co-defendant insufficient to incriminate unless corroborated by other evidence. In this regard, the court cited Article 187 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which stipulates that, “The statement of one defendant against persons who participated with him in the crime shall not constitute sufficient, probative evidence. It is up to the judge to assess it in light of the evidence available to him”. Similarly, the Criminal Court in Beirut deemed the minor’s statements insufficient to meet the exploitation element of the crime of human trafficking. Thus emerges the first of the preconceptions in this area. The rulings dealt with the statements of the victims as though they were made by the trafficking defendants’ partner in crime and not by their victims.

Making matters worse, the rulings ignored the available evidence of the trafficking defendants’ involvement in acts of exploitation in prostitution. This evidence corroborates the women’s statements and rules out the recourse to the rule rejecting uncorroborated accomplice testimony. The most prominent of this evidence is the statement a witness made against the first trafficking defendant in the case of the Syrian woman and that appeared in both the preliminary investigations and the ruling. The witness was one of those arrested in the famous “Chez Maurice” case who “happened to be detained in the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau’s jail” during the investigation of the trafficking defendant. The bureau interviewed the witness on the Public Prosecution’s orders, and a face-to-face meeting was held between the trafficking defendant and him. He stated that he had known this defendant for nine years, that they had been apprehended together in Syria in a prostitution case, that the defendant was a relative of one of those detained in the “Chez Maurice” case, that he had seen the defendant with the ringleader in the aforementioned case, and that the defendant is “active in the field of bringing Syrian girls to work in prostitution”. Despite this testimony, the ruling rejected the victim’s statements without explaining why.

Additionally, the rulings did not take into consideration circumstantial evidence: some of the trafficking defendants were on the run, or failed to appear before the court, and have numerous priors for facilitating prostitution from years earlier, which could indicate regular criminal activity spanning a period of time.


Victim’s Consent Deemed Relevant Contrary to the Law

The two rulings accepted the defendant victims’ consent to their exploitation as a reason to consider the element of coercion to practice prostitution – and, subsequently, the exploitation element of the felony of human trafficking – unfulfilled. While the ruling issued in the first case deduced the minor victim’s consent to her exploitation by deeming that she was in a position of “mutual interests” with the adult defendant with whom she split the earnings from her prostitution, the ruling in the second case stated verbatim that the victim’s “prostitution occurred with her consent, and she was not subjected to any exploitation”.

Both rulings also ignored the defendant victim’s statements about their socio-economic circumstances and the nature of their relationships with those accused of trafficking them. Similarly, the rulings ignored their vulnerability and the circumstances and means of their exploitation, which negate their criminal intent. The rulings also did not verify the victims’ physical or mental health.

Most gravely, the two courts took this approach even though it violates explicit provisions in Article 586-1 of the Penal Code, which addresses human trafficking crimes and prohibits taking into consideration the victim’s consent to the exploitation.[4] The courts’ approach also contradicts recent jurisprudence (2017) by the Court of Cassation in a case of exploitation in begging. This jurisprudence held that the exploitation element is fulfilled whether the victim was coerced to commit illegal acts or consented to doing so and that to say otherwise would conflict with the “legislator’s intent”, namely to protect victims of human trafficking who may consent to the act of exploitation on the basis of their social, family, or economic situation or their belonging to a country where they are “vulnerable” because of destitution, poverty, or other circumstances that compel people to accept exploitation by others to make a living. Such “consent” occurs via compulsion and without free will.[5]

The ruling pertaining to the minor defendant also conflicts with an earlier ruling issued in 2015 by a different body of the Criminal Court in Beirut. That ruling ultimately convicted the defendant of human trafficking because, “Any consent by [the minor victim] is irrelevant, and the use of means of threat and the like is not required in this regard”.[6]


Discrediting Victim’s Statements Based on Prejudices

The rulings doubted the defendant victims’ statements about their exploitation, deeming that they consented to practicing prostitution and therefore were not subjected to exploitation, all without any verification of their physical or mental health.

The ruling issued by the Beirut court in the case of the minor stated,

Whereas the aforementioned evidence [i.e. the minor’s statements] is not in itself sufficient evidence that the exploitation element was fulfilled in light of the [minor] defendant’s proven practice of prostitution, her statement that she split the money earned evenly with the [third trafficking] defendant, and her statements that she commuted to work in this field in various places, as well as her waiving of her personal right concerning the [first and second trafficking] defendants.


Similarly, the ruling issued by the Baabda court stated,

The [prostitution] defendant’s statements were not corroborated by any evidence, and they are of doubtful credibility given her prostitution and drug use, her assertion that she does not know the [second trafficking] defendant, and her freedom of movement, which indicates that her prostitution was consensual and that she was not subjected to any exploitation.


Hence, the two rulings evidently relied on a series of prejudices to cast doubt over and ultimately ignore the victims’ statements indicating that exploitation occurred. The most important of these prejudices are as follows:

  • The victim’s prostitution: The rulings in question deemed that the defendants’ practice of prostitution discredit their statements about being exploited.

  • The victim’s drug use: In the second case, the court held that the adult prostitution defendant’s drug use was evidence that she was not exploited. This consideration reflects prejudices against women whereby the acts they commit in the context of their exploitation become a reason to question their credibility and, subsequently, to lift suspicion off the exploiting party. Similarly, the court completely ignored that exploiting the vulnerability caused by the victims’ drug addiction is one of the main means that traffickers use to exploit them. This exploitation is achieved either by encouraging the victim to become addicted or by exploiting her addiction to strengthen her dependence on the traffickers. The two prostitution defendants stated that the trafficking defendants supplied them with drugs and paid for the drugs using the money they collected from the customers. Thus, the court cited one of the means of exploitation (exploiting the vulnerability of drug addiction) as evidence that no exploitation occurred.

  • The victim’s freedom of movement and the stereotype of the detained victim: The courts held that the adult prostitution defendant’s “freedom of movement” and the minor’s “commuting to work in prostitution in various places” indicate that the conditions for exploitation were not fulfilled and that they practiced prostitution of their own volition. The courts thereby expressed the stereotypical idea that an exploited victim is a detained victim, ignoring the means of exploitation specified in the law, which do not center on deprivation of liberty. These means include threats; abuse of spousal authority; exploiting the victim’s vulnerability, young age, poverty, or need to secure a livelihood or pay debts; and other means that the defendant victims expressed in these two cases.

  • “Mutual interests” between the trafficking defendant and the minor victim: The stereotype of the victim who receives no gain? The ruling considered the fact that the minor defendant split the money collected from clients evenly with the trafficking defendant who secured them for her as evidence that the relationship between them was based on “mutual interests” and not exploitation. With this consideration, the ruling intentionally disregarded the financial gain that the trafficking defendant obtained via the sexual services provided by the minor.

It is difficult to understand this consideration given the young age of the prostitution defendant in this case and the isolation she suffered because she lacked family care and social support after leaving her abusive family home. Here too, the ruling expressed a stereotypical idea, namely that a victim receives none of the money yielded by her exploitation. In fact, securing financial resources is one of the primary means that traffickers used to lure women, especially minors, into prostitution. Similarly, the ruling ignored that merely luring the minor, harboring her, and reaping financial gain from her prostitution is enough to fulfill the elements of human trafficking, irrespective of the means used to do so (i.e. even if the money was split with her). This conclusion also contradicted the stance that the Court of Cassation took in the aforementioned 2017 case of exploitation in begging. This court stressed that the victim’s financial gain does not disprove exploitation; rather, it constitutes a means of inducing consent to exploitation.[7]

  • The victim’s lack of familiarity with the trafficking defendant: Ignoring the nature of organized crime? The ruling in the second case deemed the fact that the prostitution defendant and the accused owner of the hotel where she was lodged while she practiced prostitution did not know each other personally to be evidence that she was not exploited. Yet she stated that her husband was the one who made an agreement with the hotel owner, that the two of them split the money yielded by her prostitution, and that her relationship was limited to the hotel’s bookkeeper. Thus, the ruling ignored the nature of the organized crime of human trafficking. Rarely do major traffickers communicate directly with the exploitation victims; rather, they use middlemen, including members of the victims’ families. The ruling also ignored one of the means of exploitation specified in the law, namely giving financial benefits to a person with power over the victim, in this case her husband.


Doesn’t Profiting From Prostitution Constitute Human Trafficking?

After denying the exploitation and acquitting the six human trafficking defendants of this felony, the two criminal courts then convicted five of them with crimes related to human trafficking. In the first case, the three trafficking defendants were convicted of the misdemeanor of profiting from another’s prostitution (Article 527 of the Penal Code) because they facilitated the minor’s prostitution. In the second, the defendant victim’s husband was convicted of profiting from another’s prostitution, and the hotel owner was convicted of facilitating it (Article 523 of the Penal Code).

On what grounds did the two rulings base this distinction between the felony of human trafficking  and the misdemeanors of facilitating prostitution and profiting from it(a distinction that has implications concerning the investigation procedures, the competent court, the detention period, and the sentence)? Was it based on the means used against the woman practicing prostitution, the nature of the woman’s relationship with the person profiting from her prostitution, or the size of this profit?

Decisions in such cases help establish clear jurisprudence to distinguish between these crimes and clarify the substance of the legislative reform introduced by the anti-human trafficking law’s adoption.

However, the only basis for distinction that these two rulings adopted was whether the woman was “coerced” to practice prostitution. The absence of such coercion supposedly means that the exploitative purpose element of the crime of human trafficking was not fulfilled. By this logic, if the woman consented to practicing prostitution then there was no human trafficking felony, and the means used to induce her to consent to exploitation are almost entirely ignored. Hence, the rulings relied on a criterion that blatantly contravenes the law by taking into consideration the victim’s consent to exploitation while disregarding the means of exploitation specified in the law, particularly the abuse of vulnerability. Moreover, the rulings did not verify the sources of livelihood of any of those convicted of profiting for the prostitution of another, nor the profits they made, which reflects the general judicial trend of failing to examine the financial aspect of human trafficking and the profits reaped from sexual exploitation.

In conclusion, the two rulings in question refused to acknowledge the existence of an exploitative relationship between the trafficking defendants and the two women (one a minor) whose prostitution they benefited from. The rulings convicted all of them as partners in the crime and equal beneficiaries of it. To reach this conclusion, the courts relied on a series of preconceptions that reformulate this relationship as a partnership in a moral offense or restrict the concept of an exploitation victim to a stereotype resembling the victims of the “Chez Maurice” ring (detained, battered, and without financial gain), totally ignoring the means of exploitation and the legal, economic, and social circumstances under which it is practiced. By taking this approach, the courts appear to be distorting the spirit and substance of the anti-human trafficking law rather than using it as a tool to combat sexual exploitation.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Nizar Saghieh and Ghida Frangieh, “al-Da’ara Jarima Akhlaqiyya am Jarimat Istighlal? Qira’a Qanuniyya li-Qadaya 228 Mudda’a ‘Alayhinna bi-Jarm al-Da’ara al-Sirriyya”, KAFA (Enough) Violence & Exploitation, 2013.

[2] Ruling no. 272 issued by the Criminal Court in Beirut on March 15, 2018.

[3] Ruling no. 1058 issued by the Criminal Court in Baabda on December 19, 2017.

[4] The penultimate paragraph of Article 586-1 of the Penal Code stipulates,

Consent by a victim, one of his ascendants, his legal guardian, or any other person with legal or de-facto authority over him to the intended exploitation described in this article shall not be taken into consideration.

[5] Court of Cassation (Third Criminal Chamber), decision no. 231/2017, dated July 13, 2017, ruling bench: President Suhayr al-Haraka and auxiliary judges Nazih Charbel (delegated) and Nahida Khaddaj.

[6] Ruling issued on December 28, 2015, by the Criminal Court in Beirut, composed of President Muhammad Mazlum and auxiliary judges Hani Habbal and Bassam al-Haj, case no. 362/2015.

[7] Court of Cassation (Third Criminal Chamber), decision no. 231/2017, op. cit. The decision stated,

Whereas the benefit that the accused reaped from begging does not disprove the element of the defendant’s exploitation… because the legal text itself does not stipulate that and does not deny that a human trafficking victim could obtain a benefit; rather, [it states] that the benefit reaped by a human trafficking victim or the person in charge of him is what induces consent to the exploitation, whether that consent comes from him or any person who has legal or de-facto authority over him.

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