Silencing Lensa Lelisa: When the Public Prosecution Becomes a Gag

2018-07-23    |   

On June 18, 2018, The Legal Agenda’s administration received a letter from the Cyber Crime Bureau of the Internal Security Forces requesting that it remove an article written by our colleague Elham Barjas from its website as quickly as possible:


“Failing Lensa Lelisa: Sponsoring Justice or Impunity?”


The letter cited the order that Appellate Advocate-General in Mount Lebanon Judge Rami Abdullah issued in relation to the ongoing investigation into a complaint that Crystal and Alexis Khalil filed against the website This is Lebanon and anyone the investigation uncovers for defamation via Facebook and YouTube. The bureau sent the letter after calling and emailing The Legal Agenda to make the same demand. The letter was also sent to numerous other media outlets and rights organizations.


To recap, Lensa – an Ethiopian woman working in domestic service in Lebanon – had related in a video that the torture she endured from her sponsors had driven her to jump from the balcony to escape their home, becoming injured in the process. However, after the video was published and she returned to the home, she denied her original story and declared her love for the sponsor and the sponsor’s family. The Internal Security Forces and General Security investigated, and it was subsequently declared that the story in the video was a mere fabrication.


This approach taken by the Public Prosecution, which sets a new precedent in dealing with the media, reflects remarkable interest and enthusiasm in imposing the official narrative that the security forces’ investigations produced and ending any attempt to question it, all to protect the sponsors’ reputation. The approach has three problems:


The first problem is that the Public Prosecution’s approach shows a clear intellectual bias, conscious or otherwise, toward adopting the employers’ narrative in preparation for absolving them of the accusation of torture or mistreatment.


This is evident in the importance that the Public Prosecution attached to Lensa’s recantation of her testimony. The Public Prosecution clearly considered this recantation sufficient evidence that the statements about torture and exploitation made in the video were false and that it refutes any evidence that these acts occurred. Such evidence includes that Lensa was compelled to jump from a balcony(instead of leaving through the front door) – a dangerous jump that would result in broken bones.


Two things render the Public Prosecution’s attitude more problematic:


1. The Public Prosecution came to this conclusion based on investigations that the security forces conducted behind the scenes and in the employers’ presence, without any of the advocates-general bothering to interview Lensa directly and, most importantly, without Lensa being supported by a lawyer or receiving any legal aid. From this perspective, the Public Prosecution accepted the narrative absolving the employers based on partial investigations that followed procedures incapable of assuring Lensa – the potential victim – that she could tell the truth without facing any subsequent threat.


2. The Public Prosecution’s reliance on Lensa’s recantation reflects a lack of understanding of a domestic worker’s situation under the sponsorship system. This system not only prevents the worker from disclosing the truth or demanding justice, but also compels her to deny and try to re-conceal the truth should it emerge. This is why The Legal Agenda titled the Arabic version of its article on Lensa’s case “Does the Sponsorship System Sponsor Impunity?” This question stems not from information specific to the case (we were unable to interview Lensa, and to this day we have been unable to view the preliminary investigation) nor from a preconceived position on the course of the investigations; rather, it stems from the general conclusions that anyone earnestly observing the justice system in the case of domestic workers would reach. Such an observation would unequivocally show that Lebanon’s sponsorship system helps, via the privileges it grants the sponsor, not only to enable the sponsor to vastly exploit the worker but also (and no less gravely) to provide the sponsor with impunity and therefore strip the worker of any judicial protection. By connecting the legality of residency to the employment contract, the sponsorship system renders the status of a worker who leaves her job – whatever the reason – illegal. Obviously, this limits the options available to the victim worker, who is usually forced to tolerate and accept violations against her to maintain her legal residency. In this case, Lensa’s silence [in the face of abuse] is another form of sacrifice she makes to help provide for her family in her home country. This usually encourages the abusive sponsor to increase their violations.


Even in cases where a worker is compelled to, and succeeds in, “fleeing” from the workplace, she still cannot resort to the justice system if she must support her family by remaining in Lebanon. In these cases, the worker’s deportation is inevitable under the sponsorship system unless she obtains her (abusive) sponsor’s agreement to relinquish their sponsorship to another person. Consequently, the worker, and the entities assisting her, must implore the sponsor to do so in exchange for them completely abandoning any complaint against the sponsor.


Given the above, it is clear that under the sponsorship system, a worker must remain silent about violations committed against her and give up the ability to prosecute her sponsor if she wishes to continue to work in Lebanon. In short, the sponsorship system strips the workers of their right to litigate or, in other words, to benefit from legal protection – one of the rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which constitute an inseparable part of the Lebanese Constitution. The worker always faces the following ordeal: employment in Lebanon or justice after deportation.


Given this unjust ordeal, the workers’ silence – or their affirmation that employers treat them well – is a natural result of their need to work in Lebanon under the sponsorship system. No rational person would reasonably and conscientiously conclude that violations definitely did not occur based on silence or affirmations. What applies to the workers in general applies a fortiori to Lensa’s case when she was lying in a hospital bed with broken limbs. Who would pay the hospital bill? Even if the accusations she made in the video were completely true, could she prove them? Or would they be used to charge her with libel, slander and defamation, potentially resulting in many months of imprisonment? Did she have lawyers capable of defending her rights and presenting her evidence to the court? These and other enormous and terrifying questions each stood like a mountain before her.


In such a situation, serious doubts surround Lensa’s recantation of the torture and human trafficking allegation and her affirmation that she loves the family, doubts that cannot be resolved in one direction or another. In fact, the recantation constitutes an additional concern as it suggests that Lensa was pressured to deny her statements.


Hence, given the gravity of the acts suspected to have occurred (which constitute felonies), the Public Prosecution should have made extra effort to conduct a broad and transparent investigation with a high degree of professionalism (for example, it could have employed reputable forensic doctors, or the investigation could have been conducted by one of the prosecutors known for their integrity and that have not received any disciplinary sanction as a direct result of their judicial work). Most importantly, such an investigation should have occurred after Lensa was granted access to a lawyer in order to reassure and empower her.


But as these things did not happen, the Public Prosecution handled the investigation into this case with a degree of bias, breaching its obligation of impartiality and neutrality toward one of the weakest groups most in need of protection by the judiciary and Public Prosecution Offices.


The second problem is that the Public Prosecution sought to impose its narrative as truth in a manner that encroaches on the powers of the trial courts and violates freedom of expression.


Clearly, the Public Prosecution was not content to merely close the case on the abuses against Lensa; rather, it sought, in an unprecedented move aimed at satisfying the “sponsor’s” demand, to compel all media outlets and rights organizations to accept its official narrative of this event. This is evident in the Public Prosecution’s abovementioned order to remove any media material defaming the sponsor – the order on the basis of which the Cyber Crime Bureau sent a letter to The Legal Agenda (and other media outlets) demanding it remove the article it published on the topic. This move warrants several criticisms:


1. It is an encroachment by the Public Prosecution on the powers of the judiciary, which is the party responsible for making judgments. The Public Prosecution represents public right. It has a right (and duty) to exercise public right to prosecute crimes before the judiciary, but under no circumstances may it issue judgments or “impose the judicial truth”, all of which are the responsibility of the judiciary alone. Making this encroachment even graver, the Public Prosecution was content to issue a general order to remove anything defaming the sponsor, leaving it up to the Cyber Crime Bureau to determine which media material falls within that category. Hence, the Public Prosecution not only encroached on the judiciary’s power to establish the facts that must be respected but also paved the way for the judicial police, on its part, to encroach on these powers.


The danger of this precedent lies in the Public Prosecution and judicial police’s seizure of power to restrict the freedom of the media and rights organizations to publish in one direction or another without bothering to enable any outlet to provide its opinion or defend its perspective in this regard (and therefore in a total and blatant transgression of trial procedure in freedom of expression cases).


2. The Public Prosecution’s order sets a dangerous precedent in attacking freedom of expression as it signals that any media outlet that does not comply could be prosecuted. The best evidence of this is that in accordance with this order, the Cyber Crime Bureau sent letters to remove not only the articles that endorsed Lensa’s original story about torture and exploitation but also those that questioned the Public Prosecution’s findings or called for a transparent and independent investigation, as in the case of The Legal Agenda’s article. Making this attack even more erroneous, it could establish a new practice that ultimately enables the Public Prosecution to determine what can and cannot be published in light of the results of the preliminary investigations that it oversees and, subsequently, to bestow on these investigations a sanctity not recognized in any law.


Hence, the attack on freedom of expression in this case undermines one of its primary functions, namely to criticize the discrimination that vulnerable groups experience, especially in the realm of justice. From this angle, it appears to be another step to complement the system of impunity: after the workers were barred from accessing justice, here they are being barred from accessing the media. It appears that anything is acceptable if it serves the system of impunity in cases about exploiting these workers, and that this case is not aimed at protecting a specific sponsor from defamation but at protecting the sponsorship system as a whole.


These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that the Cyber Crime Bureau not only sent these letters but also went as far as to summon certain journalists for interrogation in contravention of the customs that dictate they be interviewed by a Public Prosecution judge in the presence of a lawyer.


The third and final problem with the Public Prosecution’s actions in this case is that it dedicated a lot of energy to fighting “defamation” and “calumny” against the sponsor.


Irrespective of how legitimate the steps it took to impose its official narrative are, any observer would be astonished by the exceptional impetus in this case, which manifested itself not only in the expansion of the investigation to encompass a large number of media outlets and rights organizations but also in the adoption of unprecedented practices and legal interpretations.


This problem is most evident when we compare this great effort with the Public Prosecution Offices’ total neglect to prosecute hundreds of calumny crimes committed by “sponsors”, who usually file theft accusations – falsely and with no evidence – against workers who dare abandon their workplaces. It is likewise evident when we compare this effort to these Public Prosecution Offices’ absolute sympathy (and not just their neglect) for these fabrications, as evidenced by the fact that these offices have prosecuted and detained many workers in the absence of any evidence.


Why do the Public Prosecution Offices sympathize with calumny against workers – which usually leads to the workers being deprived of liberty for months before evidence of their innocence appears – despite its gravity and catastrophic consequences? Is it that the Public Prosecution sees defending the reputation of the sponsors, who have many platforms to defend themselves thanks to their economic power, as a priority and defending the reputation and liberty of hundreds of workers as inconsequential?


In light of such comparisons, the Public Prosecution’s actions expose its vision of its function as one based primarily upon protecting power irrespective of what is right, one utilized more by those seeking to consolidate their influence than those in the direst need of its protection.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords: Domestic worker, Lebanon, Freedom of the press, Lensa Lelisa

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