Purging the Judiciary under Helou: The Reform that Never Was

2017-07-20    |   

Purging the Judiciary under Helou: The Reform that Never Was

Charles Helou was elected president of Lebanon in 1964, succeeding Fuad Chehab. He officially adopted a reformist agenda and tied the fate of his term to the outcome of these reforms. In 1965, he declared his intent to completely purge the administration and judiciary of its corrupt and indolent elements.

Pursuant to this policy, Parliament issued a law that reorganized the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and granted it exceptional powers to dismiss judges. This led to the unprecedented dismissal of 16 judges in December 1965 and February 1966.

This article will examine the “purge” of the judicial cadre, as it was referred to by the people concerned at the time. The discussions that occurred during Helou’s presidency remain relevant today, when similar measures are being used and their efficacy doubted. Examining the history of Helou’s “reforms” can therefore bear important lessons for current and future plans for judicial reform; especially given that often, the executive branch proposes broad themes for reforming the judiciary, only to then be content with holding a number of judges accountable without exerting any effort to reform the system responsible for judicial dysfunction.   

The 1965-1966 Purge

President Helou obtained the support of most parliamentary blocs for his judicial reforms. Many of these politicians stressed that the status quo in the courthouses must end. Many judges had become subject to repeated accusations in various political and legal assemblies.[1]

Hence, the government of Prime Minister Hussein Al Oweini began studying a bill that would, for a limited period, give the SJC exceptional powers to purge the judiciary. Al Oweini’s proposals included:

  • Expanding the powers of the SJC;

  • Allowing the transfer of judges to the administrative apparatus in preparation for their dismissal; and

  • Inviting the judges to be dismissed to resign to maintain their dignity.[2]

Under Helou’s supervision, then-minister of justice Nasim Majdalani prepared the first draft of the purge bill. Accordingly, the Council of Ministers –in the presence of SJC President Badri Meouchi, Cassation Public Prosecutor Nabih al-Bustani, and Judicial Inspection Committee President Shawkat al-Munla– agreed to propose a bill to amend the law regulating the Supreme SJC. The bill’s most important elements were:

  • It gave the Supreme Judicial Council, in its capacity as a special authority, the power to examine, either of its own accord or at the request of the Council of Ministers, a judge’s conduct-related [maslaki] competence, health status, and [professional] capacity to work in the judiciary. The authority could subsequently terminate the judge. The authority’s decisions were to be adopted via a secret ballot requiring an absolute majority. A decision, if adopted, would be immediately referred to the Council of Ministers, which would make a final determination on the decision within ten days of the date on which the Council’s Secretariat received it.

  • If the aforementioned period elapsed without a final determination, the decision would enter into effect and the judge would be terminated as a matter of course without the need for any special text to be issued. All financial rights owed to the judge would be settled in accordance with the laws in force.

  • Even graver, the bill deemed that termination on the basis of this article would not be open to “any means of review, including requesting annulment on account of excess of authority or requesting compensation via recourse of full jurisdiction.

  • The bill allowed every judge to request to be dismissed or referred to retirement within ten days of the bill’s entry into effect, although the Council of Ministers could accept or deny the request.

  • The bill set the compensation given to a judge terminated or referred to retirement on the basis of the aforementioned provisions at an amount equal to his or her base wage plus family allowance for four months.

Via this bill, the government sought to give the Supreme Judicial Council discretionary powers allowing it to control not only judges’ work, but also their fate. The bill also completely omitted judges’ right to defend themselves and barred them from accessing any mechanism for annulling or appealing the decisions.

Parliament began discussing the bill regulating the Supreme Judicial Council in early July 1965. The MPs addressed several interesting points during these sessions, including granting judges the right to defend themselves and producing a law that takes into account the public’s real grievances. The public had blamed judges for delaying the resolution of cases and prolonging trials for years. The role of judicial inspection was also discussed, and the MPs’ interventions agreed on the importance of effectuating its role to protect the judiciary. The interventions also emphasized the increase of political interference in the judiciary and the spread of corruption in the justice system, as evidenced by the growing phenomenon of luxury cars and houses and the postponement of rulings at the request of influential people.

It took four discussion sessions for Parliament to pass the law. While the discussions bore many valuable proposals, equivalents of which are still being debated today, the law was issued as it was originally proposed with no notable amendments. It was passed via a majority vote on July 19, 1965. MPs Joseph Mghabghab and Nazem Qadri opposed it and MPs Albert Moukheiber and Jean Aziz abstained from voting. Al Oweini’s government resigned, and consultations began for forming a government that would represent all parliamentary blocs and therefore enjoy the political support needed to carry out the purge. In late July 1965, Helou charged Prime Minister Rashid Karami with forming a new government capable of undertaking the purge.

The law was issued in the Official Gazette on September 9, 1965, and judges wishing to request their dismissal or referral to retirement were given ten days, beginning on September 9, to do so.[3]

On December 17, 1965, the Supreme Judicial Council referred the first decision, which proposed terminating 12 judges. Press reports had named 23 judges as candidates for dismissal.

Many MPs and ministers objected, for reasons we shall review later, to the choice of judges. But the Council of Ministers agreed in the final session (which lasted 13 hours) to terminate them. The decision was issued via a majority vote among the government’s members.[4]

Hence, the dismissal decision entered into effect with the issuance of Decree no. 2452 on December 19, 1965. The decree entitled the dismissed judges to claim the retirement pension or dismissal compensation.

Prime Minister Karami deemed that the second article of the judicial reform law made the Council of Ministers the supreme authority on the matter and that it could exercise its authority as it saw fit. He said that by preserving the Council of Minister’s authority, the legislature intended to ensure the most fairness possible in the measures that the Supreme Judicial Council adopts. He added that the criteria that the Supreme Judicial Council adopted were based on three cornerstones: incapacity, incompetence, and health. After listening to the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, it was evident to the ministers that the grounds for dismissal mostly concerned conduct, relating to the performance of judicial tasks, and did not compromise the dignity or honor of the judges. With regard to judges, evaluating conduct-related aspects is essentially up to the Supreme Judicial Council.

The first round of purging failed to convince public opinion of Helou’s government’s intent to carry out serious reforms. Only Helou remained insistent on moving forward, tying the fate of his term to that of the purge. The president insisted on publicizing [his campaign] under grand slogans and stressed that the wheels were in motion and would not stop: “There’s no point wondering whether or not such-and-such ministry will witness reform measures. Every ministry in need of reform will be reformed.”[5]

As 1966 rolled in, Helou called for speeding up the second round of the purge “given the state of anxiety that is prevailing over officials and paralyzing their activity”.[6]

After the issuance of the purge decree, courthouses experienced a lull to the extent that operations had stalled in some courts. The situation became more complicated after the people concerned were unable to fill the positions that had become vacant as there had already been a shortage of judges.

Hence, on February 11, 1966, the Supreme Judicial Council decided to dismiss four more judges: Institute of Judicial Studies President Khalil Juraij, Justice Council member Salim al-Turk, Civil Court of Appeal President Wathiq Husami, and Individual Judge in Beirut Jamil Abu Khatir. It was understood that the grounds for dismissing some of them were related to health, and the grounds for dismissing the others included nothing compromising integrity (it was reported that Salim al-Turk was being dismissed for his Masonic activity and his relationship with the Kurds). The president of the Supreme Judicial Council revealed that this round was to be the last and that he felt the council had done its duties.

The ministers had reservations about the grounds presented for dismissing the judges and reaffirmed the right of judges to defend themselves. But they ultimately approved the dismissal decision “out of consideration for public interest”.[7]

In fact, the purge ended at this point. Soon after, in April 1966, Karami’s government resigned, confirming that the purge was over and that reform had been nothing more than a resounding slogan.

Accountability and Independence

At the beginning of the campaign, the officials had said that there were corrupt judges who take bribes and postpone rulings for the sake of influential people and that reforming the judiciary meant purging it, not institutional reforms. During the purge process, judges became fair game, and no comments were made about the danger this posed or its negative effect on the judiciary’s independence and performance. Yet in the parliamentary debates, some MP interventions suggest that so-called judicial corruption was first and foremost a question of political interference in the judiciary, especially in the work of the Judicial Inspection Committee. Such interference had prevented the Committee from taking action against protected judges irrespective of how embroiled they were in serving politicians’ interests.

In this context, MP Kamal Jumblatt argued that real reform begins with preventing the political authorities from interfering with the judiciary. Interference had disrupted the judicial institutions, especially the Judicial Inspection Committee, preventing accountability within the judiciary. In one of the sessions discussing the purge law, Jumblatt commented on “the need to purge the executive branch too” as the real corruption was among politicians: “They have corrupted the judiciary and turned it into an instrument for their own ends, political grudges, and financial interests”.

He saw reform as a long process involving giving the judicial institutions additional powers, especially the Judicial Inspection Committee.

Jumblatt also praised the efficient and honest performance of the judiciary during the French Mandate. He pointed out that the judicial branch had enjoyed great independence and was remarkably productive.[8] He linked the decline in productivity to the role of inspection and to interference: “During the French mandate, no judge, no matter how important he was in the state, dared snooze on a case, not even for one month, for Inspection would prosecute him and ask him why this case was still lying in his drawer gathering dust. At the very least, that must be done in this country because a judge is human too, and susceptible to comply [with attempts to interfere]. When wasta comes at him from all directions, he inevitably keeps this case in the drawer until the political haze that makes one party more influential than another clears.” Jumblatt ultimately called for the creation of “an honor charter to act as a system of personal conduct for judges, for a judge’s personal conduct is linked to his job, and his job has a certain sanctity. A judge’s personal conduct must be in line with this sanctity that his job imposes upon him”.

As soon as the purge had ended, it was clear that the dismissal of 16 judges and the claim that the operation had succeeded in purging and reforming the judiciary were, in reality, an attempt to turn a blind eye to the most serious causes lying behind the corruption of the judiciary; and, allowing interference in its work. The texts that criminalize interference in the judiciary remained unchanged, and no recourse was even made to them. The legislature did not attempt to develop a law that protects judges from the pressures exercised on them. Hence, they could only confront such pressure with their own resilience. Consequently, judges were ultimately portrayed as the only ones responsible for bribes, corruption, and delayed rulings. In turn, the political system –which bore the primary responsibility according to the MPs themselves– was implicitly exonerated.

Worse, many statements attributed the dismissal of senior judges to an attempt on the part of the new era to dispose of judges affiliated with the previous one (that of Camille Chamoun). Such statements gave the impression that the purge was an act of political revenge and scheming far removed from any institutional reform for the future. In MP Father Simon al-Duwayhi’s intervention in Parliament, he said that the real goal of the law was to remove those close to Chamoun from the judiciary and that “it will permanently destroy the so-called judiciary, for judges won’t be free from the president, the minister, the MP, the wealthy, or those with influence”.

Accountability and Sectarianism

Although the people concerned emphasized respecting the principles of intellectual and professional competence in the purge, it quickly became apparent that the Supreme Judicial Council applied the traditional formula of sectarian balance in Lebanon. The dismissals were six Christians and six Muslims.

As soon as the press had spread the news, sectarian-based interventions and objections began, especially regarding the dismissal of prominent judges from certain sects. Annahar reported that when the government addressed the Supreme Judicial Council’s decision, Prime Minister Karami opposed the dismissal of Ahmad al-Ahdab, president of the Court of Accounts, and Khalid al-Hasan, the individual judge in Beirut. In the same vein, the Supreme Islamic Council issued an objection to the dismissal of three Sunni judges, including the president of the Court of Accounts, and two ministers delayed taking a stance in the government until the aforementioned council had been consulted. Similarly, minister Alam al-Din expressed his concern about and opposition to the “dismissal of the most senior Druze judge in Lebanon without this judge having been asked any question about it or knowing the reasons”.[9]

MP Adib al-Firzli expressed his doubts about the reform succeeding “so long as the body responsible for realizing it has been formed on a sectarian basis”. Such a body, he argued, “should be formed on the basis of honor, on competence, on the basis of the clean history of the official who will conduct the purge. Otherwise, what good is it?”[10]

On the other hand, Karama reassured everyone that the rights of the sects were reserved and that “the official that will be appointed to the position that becomes vacant must be from the same sect as the one transferred from it or dismissed”.[11] In practice, this reassurance strengthened sectarianism within the judiciary and paved the way for fixing the sectarian identity of a number of positions, all in the name of reform, of course.

Accountability and the Right of Defense

The discourse of the 1960s does not differ from that which has emerged with the formation of any new government since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. Purge is presented as the only way to get rid of corrupt judges, and the calls for the implementation of Article 95 of the law governing the judicial judiciary escalate. This article allows the Supreme Judicial Council to issue, , via a vote requiring eight of the council’s ten members to pass, a non-appealable decision to dismiss a judge for incapacity. The article does not enable the judge to practice the right to defend him- or herself.

The same strategy was employed in the purge of the 1960s. A law barring judges from defending themselves was adopted, which led to a broad opposition campaign on the part of MPs and judges. But the opposition remained verbal, for the MPs approved the law and the subsequent decision to dismiss the judges.

Jumblatt wondered, “How can the Supreme Judicial Council take a measure to dismiss a judge and convict him of various accusations without listening to what he has to say?” When it was answered that Parliament was the one that gave the Supreme Judicial Council these powers, Jumblatt responded that considerations must be made and nothing prevents the Supreme Judicial Council from interpreting the law broadly.[12] Jumblatt then wrote in a leading article in al-Anba, “What is this purge that acts as judge, jury, and executioner over a man without asking him about the truth of the things being attributed to him, the things being said about him, the things of which he is being accused, without asking him whether he is innocent or guilty and to try to justify himself? A person convicted in absentia, as they have done in this country, can claim to whoever might hear, ‘I’m innocent; they were biased against me; I’ve been wronged; if not, why did they evade hearing or listening to my defense?”

Judge Philip Khayrallah stated in his memoirs that, remarkably, President Helou sought the assistance of the State Council’s president, who would himself later be purged, in determining what the purge law needed to include so that the dismissals issued would not be open to any kind of review or appeal: “Thus the advisor became the first victim of his advice. He found no path of complaint or appeal open to him.”[13]

Annahar exclusively published a letter by Henry Shaghuri, one of the judges who had been purged, wherein he attacked Parliament for approving an arbitrary law whose consequences created a political and social crisis: “The legislation that the Supreme Judicial Council tried to apply was defective and contrary to the axioms of legislation and justice. It is an arbitrary, unjust legislation that should not and cannot be applied. The fault lies entirely in the legislation and not with the Supreme Judicial Council. Such a legislation turns senior judges into suspects and criminals, whereby they are accused in secret, investigated in secret, tried in secret, and then judged in secret without even the right to know the issue in its entirety. It should not be considered a legislation at all, and the best evidence of the problem with this legislation is what we are seeing, hearing, and reading with regard to the human crisis and the crisis of conscience that the Supreme Judicial Council’s decision has caused not only in public opinion and the press, but also in the Council of Ministers itself.”[14]

Accountability Without Punishment

The decision to dismiss the judges while granting them end of service compensation and their retirement pensions is also remarkable. Either they deserved dismissal and needed to be deprived of their compensation, or they did not deserve dismissal. If they deserved compensation, why were they dismissed?

This Jumblatt pointed out when he questioned the logic behind the purge if the official goes home with end of service compensation. The purpose of the reform was to punish the corrupt, not to treat them like any other official referred to retirement. In a leading article for al-Anba, he wrote “What is this reform wherein we say to an official, ‘Here you go, please, take your compensation or retirement and get going; and as for your stolen money, keep it as a blessing, as legitimate, blessed property’, instead of trying him to recover the money that he reaped from his own corruption and his corruption of others”.


Even Helou seemed to regret the decisions dismissing judges, for in his memoirs he revealed that “In this climate, reform became the subject of fierce, contradictory criticisms from those dismissed and from public opinion, which was not satisfied or did not feel that the reform produced any progress and forgot about the judges and officials that it encompassed. Hence, this concept of reform, which turned it into condemnation and purge, was unfair to judges given the accusations that were laid against them without them having a chance to defend themselves”.[15] However, Helou did not explain what drove him to adopt an unjust law that he portrayed as bearing primary responsibility for how things turned out. Helou did not hesitate to hold his term responsibility for the purge’s failure, for he concluded his discussion of the purge by writing, “Anyone who was affected by the reform and prevented from defending himself may be entitled to repeat what Themistocles said: Strike, but listen”.[16]

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] “Mashru’ Raf’ al-Hasana ‘an al-Quda Ma Zala Warid”, Annhar, May 31, 1965, p. 2.
[2] “Mashari’ Niyabiyya wa-Hukumiyya li-Tathir al-Qada’ dun al-Luju’ Ila Raf’ al-Hasana”, Annahar, June 12, 1965, p. 2.
[3] “Imhal al-Quda ‘Asharat Ayyam Tantahi fi 19 Aylul li-Talab Sarfihim aw Ihalatihim ‘ala al-Taqa’ud”, Annahar, September 12, 1965, p. 3.
[4] Five voted in favor: Prime Minister Rashid Karami and ministers Émile Tyan, Sulayman al-Zayn, Joseph Najjar, and George Hakim. Ministers Wajdi Mallat and Habib Alam al-Din (who coupled their opposition with their resignations but later retracted them), as well as Muhammad Kaniu and Rafiq Naja (both of whom waited until the Supreme Islamic Council had been consulted) voted against.
[5] “Tadabir al-Tathir Tashmal Muwaththafi al-Fi’at al-Thalith al-Ula”, Annahar, December 22, 1965, p. 2.
[6] “Majlis al-Wuzara’ Yatattaraq li-Shu’un al-Tathir min Zawiyatayn: Khawd al-Suhuf fi al-Mawdu’ wa-Darurat Injaz al-Islah fi Kanun”, Annahar, January 6, 1966, p. 2.
[7] “Majlis al-Qada’ Yunjiz Muhimmatahu al-Ijmaliyya bi-Sarf 4 Quda”, Annahar, February 12, 1966, p. 2.
[8] The late-minister Fouad Boutros addressed this matter in his memoirs, revealing that he decided to leave the judiciary after the French left Lebanon because of the spread of corruption in the judiciary. Fouad Boutrous, Mudhakkirat, Beirut, Dar An-Nahar, 2003.
[9] “’Alam al-Din Yashrah Asbab Istiqalatihi”, al-‘Amal, December 18, 1965, p. 1.
[10] Bill to amend the composition of Supreme Judicial Council and set the special cases for terminating judges. Parliament minutes, 11th legislative round, first exceptional convention, 1965, second session transcript, July 15, 1965.
[11] “al-Hukuma Tudhi’ Tadabir al-Tathir ‘ala Dafa’at”, Annahar, January 4, 1966, p. 2.
[12] “Qirar Majlis al-Qada’ Yutabi’ Tafa’ulahu Rasmiyyan wa-Barlimaniyyan wa-Qada’iyyan”, ibid.
[13] Philip Khayrallah, Nahkum bi-Ism al-Sha’b al-Lubnani, Beirut, Sader, 2013, p. 198.
[14] “Shaghuri: Sa-Tadhkur al-Ajyal anna Lubnan Yuwalli Qadiyan li-Yahkum bi-l-‘Adl bayna al-Nas thumma Yahkum ‘alayhi dun an Yuhakim wa-Yasma’ Difa’ahu”, Annahar, December 17, 1965, p. 2.
[15] Charles Helou, Hayat fi Dhikrayat, Beirut, Dar Al-Nahar, p. 216.
[16] Ibid., p. 218.

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