Cybercrime Bureau’s ever-growing powers threatening freedoms in Lebanon

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Lebanon's Cybercrime Bureau has been accused of infringing on people's right to freedom of expression and their privacy. AFP/Getty Images/Joe Raedle

Published Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing about the 'heroics' of the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau has become tedious. Its latest exploit was the detention of a young man, Karim Hawwa, 21, for four days after he shared an article on Facebook accusing Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk of outsourcing to a company with ties to Israel.

Even more remarkable than the "crime of sharing" was the manner in which the young man was lured into detention. A close friend of Hawwa, Claude Jabr, told Al-Akhbar on November 15 that "the Bureau called him and told him his phone was stolen property and that he had to go there [to the Bureau headquarters]." The Bureau deceived the young man and did not summon him in a legal manner.

This “sharing crime,” however, is not unique. The Bureau, which operates under the umbrella of the judicial police, has designated itself as a censor of the work of journalists and electronic activists, whether it is articles, posts, tweets or "shares." One by one, people were called in for questioning based on charges by politicians and fortune tellers alike.

In September 2013, journalist Rabih Farran was called in [for questioning] based on a complaint by [famous fortune teller] Laila Abdul-Latif over an article on al-Mukhtar news site, and was forced to sign a pledge not to criticize her again.

Another example is the investigation of journalist Mohanad al-Hage Ali on charges of "slander and incitement," filed by an anonymous individual, over an article titled, "Message from a former Lebanese Forces [member] to Samir Geagea.” Back then, everyone believed the Bureau would stop targeting Lebanese journalists and activists, following the pushback it faced.

Meanwhile, the list of people called in by the Bureau continues to grow. But are its actions legal? Lawyer Nizar Saghieh explained to Al-Akhbar that the Bureau itself is "illegal," since neither the law regarding the organization of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) nor the decree regulating the setup of its internal organization stipulate its establishment.

Moreover, the Bureau was established under a memorandum of service and not a legislative decree.

Need for a new media law

The Bureau is becoming "a threat to freedoms in Lebanon due to the expansion of its powers," according to Saghieh. "They have access to all of our electronic information. There are no legal safeguards regarding privacy of information or limiting [the Bureau’s] powers." Saghieh stressed the need to continue pushing for a new media law.

Saghieh’s opinion concurred with that of MP Ghassan Moukheiber. In a phone conversation with Al-Akhbar, Moukheiber indicated the need to "adopt a media law to expand protective regulations and provide guarantees for all press workers, especially the electronic media." The Maharat Foundation – which promotes journalistic freedoms – also agreed, according to its legal advisor Tony Mikhael.

Today the number and diversity of cases in which the Bureau summons bloggers and online activists for interrogation continues to expand, raising urgent questions regarding the reasons behind such an expansion of its powers.

"The problem starts with the public prosecution, which refers the cases to [the Bureau] to investigate," lawyer Nadine Farghal said. This is because the public prosecution "usually sends cases related to information to the Cybercrime Bureau, especially those with a technical aspect."

"Recently, however, the prosecution seems to have been dealing with the issue lightly and sending all sorts of cases involving the Internet, regardless of the nature or the details of the crime. This has led to the expansion of the Bureau's powers to the degree it has reached today," Farghal continued.

She pointed to an important fact, which is that "they sometimes take advantage of the nature of the office as part of the judicial police and the manner in which investigations are conducted, which is similar to criminal investigations (like in police stations). This includes preventing the lawyer from being present during interrogations and denying the suspect their right to defend themselves. These tactics add more pressure on those who are investigated, forcing them to sign pledges or be interrogated without the presence of a competent judge."

In this context, Mikhael indicated that signing the pledges "does not deny the occurrence of the act [they are accused of]." Such pledges are not part of the rules of "criminal case procedures, but are added to the statements and records in the interrogation minutes. It does constitute a reason for non-prosecution and thus the litigation continues, especially since the plaintiff's complaint remains."

According to Farghal, "the Bureau needs to be regulated." However, until this is possible, the condemnation of its actions should stop being "individual.” “We should have an organized mobilization, such as a follow-up office of lawyers, journalists, the press, and others. Before all of that, [the Bureau] should have to tell people about their rights and duties during an interrogation," she said.

But the hope of achieving "regulation of the Bureau" seems to be a fantasy in light of the Lebanese situation, especially today. For Farghal, the answer is simple: "We need to demand the maximum to achieve some change. Nothing will happen if people's demands are reasonable."

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

This is terribly concerning...i hope to see objections to this kind of behavior...

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