BEIRUT: Lebanese judges are seldom promoted without a politician’s help, according to the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Legal Agenda, who says this state of affairs ensures legal immunity for partisan friends and cronies.
"It’s not very rare to go to a politician and [see] lots of cars of judges parked in front of his house,” Nizar Saghieh tells the Daily Star. “We are living in a country of interference [in the] judiciary. Everything is collapsing and you have nobody in jail.”
To stem what one Legal Agenda researcher calls a “growing sickness,” the NGO has drafted a sweeping new law for judicial reform, which has gained the signatures of nine MPs and been accepted for consideration in Parliament.
One of its flagship features would be to drastically reduce the role of the government, and therefore the justice minister, in appointing and transferring judges.
Under the current law, politicians must sign off on the Higher Judicial Council’s proposal for judicial appointments with a decree, allowing political interests and corruption to infect the legal system, Saghieh says.
Since the decree requires the approval of multiple Cabinet members, plus the president and prime minister, he adds, each of Lebanon’s major political groups can bargain to get their preferred judges into powerful positions. “It’s like you’re sending a message to all judges: If you want to have a good position, go and talk with those politicians.”
As a result, clientelism is rife in the judicial system, and those judges who refuse to cozy up to politicians, Saghieh says, are mocked for it.
“[Other judges tell them], ‘You are stupid, you don’t understand the system, you will never have a good position if you don’t do it.’” And many, after working years without advancement, eventually succumb.
Judges therefore become attached to political patrons, in networks that mirror the same sectarian and political groupings that cover the entire country, Saghieh says.
Dany Haddad, executive director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, confirmed the executive branch’s close involvement in the selection not just of judges, but also of the Higher Judicial Council itself, describing this as “the main factor hindering independence of the judicial system.”
Clientelism also makes it very difficult to sue influential people in Lebanon. Citing the country’s widespread environmental issues as an example, Saghieh says that it is difficult to hold any of those responsible accountable as they are able to contact the area’s political leadership, who have the prosecutors – appointed in the same process as judges – drop or stall the case.
“It’s becoming the rule of the stronger. If you are strong you can do whatever you want, if you are weak you have no right.”
The Legal Agenda’s law would therefore expand the Higher Judicial Council’s ability to make judicial appointments without government approval. It would also make the majority of the council’s members elected by judges, rather than appointed by the executive branch, and reduce the justice minister’s role in appointing the remaining members, along with other reforms.
The timeline for the law is uncertain, Saghieh concedes.
“It might take 10 years, it might take one year,” he says.
It will be discussed in Parliament’s Justice and Administration Committee for consideration two months from now, according to committee chair George Adwan.
Even when draft laws are accepted by the speaker of Parliament, however, they can languish in Parliament for years, sometimes decades, before ever getting to the stage of being debated. This law, with its agenda of cutting clientelism and reducing politicians’ influence over the judiciary, could certainly be unpopular with many MPs.
Nevertheless, George Okeis, an MP with the Lebanese Forces, says the law has the support of his bloc, on whose behalf he signed. Adwan, the LF’s deputy leader, qualifies however this support was for the “objective” of the law and its details are still subject to deliberation and change.
Okeis is also hopeful that the law will find support among newly elected MPs, who “have new ideas, a new perspective – a new understanding for the importance of having judicial independence.”
Members of civil society, moreover, believe the bill has a greater chance of getting heard now because of the commitments made during April’s CEDRE conference in order to secure pledges of over $11 billion of financial assistance to the country.
“The CEDRE reforms state that we need structural reforms, sectorial reforms and budget reforms,” says Hala Bejjani, managing director of Kulluna Irada, an NGO campaigning for stronger governance in Lebanon.
“The main things that CEDRE is asking our government to do is address corruption and put in place some good governance in the functioning of the state, and you cannot address either if you don’t have accountability, and you can’t have accountability if you don’t have a functioning judiciary,” she adds.
Bejjani says that the draft law on the judiciary had been discussed with representatives of donors, who “totally back it” being considered as part of the CEDRE reform package.
Myriam Mehanna, a legal researcher at the Legal Agenda heavily involved in the drafting of the bill, also says that CEDRE had given the issue “momentum.”
Parliament has meanwhile shown willingness to pass reformist laws, convening twice in recent months, despite the lack of a government, to pass anti-corruption bills such as a whistleblower protection law and a law designed to protect the nascent oil and gas sector from graft.
The Justice Ministry, furthermore, says it supports the idea of reform in general. “The current minister under the general instructions of the president is for an independent and strong judiciary,” a ministry spokesman says, adding that reform of the judiciary “will be one of the main projects for the next government.”
Whether or not the law is passed in the near future, its authors are happy that their draft will at least start a much-needed conversation about judicial reform: Multiple sources confirm that no other proposals or laws currently exist to carry out judicial reform.
“When you raise these issues, it’s like you are defending the cause of noncorrupted judges,” Saghieh says, adding that this law would enable “a real public debate on independence [of the judiciary].”
The reaction of judges to the law seems, so far, to be ambivalent.
While many welcome the help in improving their independence, they are wary of any initiative that comes from outside their own community, says Mary-Line Karam, a professor of international law at Lebanese University, speaking based on her experience in legal circles and not as a spokesperson for the judges. To preserve their independence and impartiality, she says, they would prefer to improve the judicial system by working within their own institutions.
For the Legal Agenda, however, the insularity of the judges’ community needs to be broken through.
The Higher Judicial Council is not a “union,” but a “public institution which must represent everybody,” Mehanna says.
“The judges are so isolated, so kept in an anachronic discourse.”
She hopes that the law will force judges “to think about these issues and increase awareness within the judiciary about the importance of their independence. If that happens, we are already winners.”