Lebanon lawyers see ban from union as political interference

BEIRUT (AP) — In crisis-hit Lebanon, lawyers have been increasingly alarmed by a recent ban from their union on media appearances not authorized by the syndicate, saying it amounts to political interference. Lawyers and human rights activists say the ban also violates laws on free speech and muzzles their accountability work.

The alarm was sounded again on Thursday, when the Beirut Bar Association interrogated for three hours Nizar Saghieh, a prominent activist lawyer, over violating the ban and appearing in the media without permission from the head of the association.

Saghieh, who heads watchdog group Legal Agenda, spoke to reporters in defiance of the decision. The head of the association, Nadir Gasbard, said the ban, issued in March, was justified to prevent what he described as “chaos in the judiciary,” citing lawyers who frequently appear in the media and comment publicly on unfinished cases.

Saghieh had criticized the government’s probe in the deadly 2020 Beirut Port explosion and has provided legal analysis on corruption cases — including a probe of Lebanon’s embattled Central Bank governor for money laundering — as well as political decisions and alleged human rights violations.

He and 12 other lawyers have filed a legal appeal against the association’s ban; the judiciary is to decide on the case early next month.

There were concerns the association could revoke Saghieh’s license following the interrogation, but that did not happen. “I told them I will continue practicing my rights and freedoms until the end,” Saghieh told reporters later Thursday.

Lebanon’s judiciary is widely seen as politicized and beholden to the government. The International Monetary Fund and human rights organizations have urged Lebanon to reform its judiciary so it can function independently and effectively.

Since late 2019, Lebanon has descended into an unprecedented economic crisis that has plunged three-quarters of its population into poverty amid soaring inflation. Political paralysis in the divided parliament has also left Lebanon without a president for almost six months.

Ahead of his interrogation, Saghieh said he said the association’s decision was “an attempt to terrorize not just me, but every free lawyer with the courage to defend rights and pursue justice.”

The Beirut Bar Association lashed out at what it called a slanderous and misleading campaign by those seeking to defame the union and said it “would not yield to any pressure.”

“This restriction is not necessary in a democratic society,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with Legal Agenda and Saghieh’s defense attorney. “It limits the possibility of lawyers to participate in public debate on legal and judicial affairs.”

Last month, Jean Kassir, head of the independent Lebanese news outlet Megaphone, was intercepted by security agents while driving and summoned for an interrogation over a critical report about the port blast probe.

The following day, Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of The Public Source independent outlet, was interrogated by the cybercrimes bureau following a complaint from the Christian Lebanese Forces party that she had allegedly said it was involved in toxic waste trade.

His case was dropped amid a public outcry while Bitar’s case was transferred to another court.

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