Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s parliament is set to vote on legislation this week that would pardon thousands arrested or wanted for non-violent crimes and also reduce prison sentences.
Two separate laws are up for a vote at a three-day legislative session that begins on Tuesday, though they will likely be compiled into a single piece of legislation.
The vote would see thousands of people arrested or wanted for misdemeanours and criminal offences – including drug use, cannabis production and celebratory gunfire, among other crimes – set free.
Families of detainees and those wanted for crimes have called for such legislation to be endorsed for over a decade.
Member of Parliament (MP) Michel Moussa, the co-sponsor of one of the bills, said that fears the coronavirus would spread through Lebanon’s massively overcrowded prisons gave an added sense of urgency.
“The Lebanese state has failed to solve the overcrowding problem for a long time. Prisoners are not being afforded their rights as citizens, and we can’t let them pay a very high price for the failure of successive governments,” Moussa told Al Jazeera. “This is a humanitarian issue.”
Longtime proponents of an amnesty say that the timing of the bill has much more to do with a crisis of confidence in the country’s establishment than a sudden humanitarian urge.
The amnesty would mainly affect people from impoverished rural areas of Lebanon such as the Bekaa Valley – where the bulk of Lebanon’s cannabis is grown illegally – and Tripoli and Akkar, where many stand accused of being affiliated with extremists.
These are the traditional support bases for establishment parties, most of which are led by former warlords who were allowed to enter politics after a 1991 general amnesty for all those who took part in the country’s 15-year civil war.
In October 2019, those sectarian parties were rattled by the biggest uprising in the country since its independence in 1943, with hundreds of thousands filling streets to call for the fall of a political class.
Moussa’s amnesty bill was submitted to the parliament on October 30, two weeks after the uprising broke out.
Moussa is a member of the parliamentary bloc led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
Berri was a main target of the protesters, who see the octogenarian warlord-turned-politician as a cornerstone of corruption in the country.
“The political class needs the amnesty because it is reeling from the blows of the October 17 revolution. It’s an attempted political bribe,” Hasan Mazloum, founder of a committee that has advocated for an amnesty since 2004, told Al Jazeera.
“If they cared about humanitarian issues, they wouldn’t have plundered this country and left the Lebanese to beg, go hungry and be forced into illegal [activities],” he said.
The legislation would still be a huge event in the country, affecting all of Lebanon’s roughly 9,000 detainees.
It would also affect a big percentage of the tens of thousands of outstanding arrest warrants in the country.
Both pieces of legislation would reduce all prison sentences by either half or two-thirds, and convert death sentences to hard labour for 25 years.
Only prisoners convicted of a small number of crimes are eligible for release. However, anyone who killed or kidnapped soldiers or civilians, produced, transported or used explosives or poisonous materials, or recruited or trained “terrorists” or funded “terrorism” will not be eligible for a release.
Both laws also exempt crimes of money laundering, trading in artefacts, human trafficking, illicit enrichment and crimes involving public money or property.
Only one of the bills, submitted by MP Bahia Hariri, also exempts environmental crimes and crimes covered by Lebanon’s 2014 domestic violence law.
But instead of naming specific crimes subject to pardon, both bills seek to exempt all crimes and then delimit the extent of the amnesty via exceptions, leaving dangerous gaps.
Herein lies one of the main issues, according to Nizar Saghieh, a leading Lebanese legal expert.
Notably, Moussa’s proposed law would not pardon those who committed environmental crimes of all kinds, in addition to financial crimes in a country that is suffering from its worst-ever financial crisis, a result of decades of corruption and mismanagement, Saghieh said.
He said Hariri’s bill was better but pardons those who have illegally occupied public maritime property, worth millions of dollars.
It also does not grant a pardon to people accused of theft “which is strange if your goal is to help poor people”, Saghieh, who is also founder of the non-governmental organisation The Legal Agenda, said.
Both bills seek to pardon all prisoners who have served their sentences but remain in prison because they have not paid outstanding fines.
Anyone pardoned would see their release overturned if they commit a similar crime again, with Hariri’s law setting a five-year probation period for criminal offences and two years for misdemeanours.
Moussa said that even if the bill became law, judges would review each case, a process that would take several months given the large numbers of people involved.
For Saghieh, the amnesty bills enshrine “the opposite of accountability” while doing little in the way of reforms to change the circumstances that led to these crimes.
If the issue is the poverty and lack of development in rural areas that led people to enter illicit activities, those must be addressed first, he said.
“Otherwise, the same crimes will be committed again, and you will be sending a clear message: ‘Don’t fear, the laws are only here for appearances, and every few years we’ll have a new amnesty’.”
Mazloum, a longtime pro-amnesty campaigner, agreed that without deeper reform, those who receive pardons would have little hope of starting afresh, especially during this crisis that has seen tens of thousands losing their jobs as half the population falls under the poverty line.
“These prisoners will come out to a world of social crisis – no life, no work, no bread,” Mazloum said. “They will come out and either join the protests on the streets or be forced to do something wrong again.”