A minister on trial

It’s not every day that you get to see a Lebanese minister pleading his case in court. But it probably should be everyday considering that Lebanon is among the world’s most corrupt countries, according to the 2012 report by Transparency International.

The ranking is not surprising in a country where government bodies routinely fail to publish any records on how public money is spent or the fact that known militia leaders, murders, criminals and their business associates are running the government with zero accountability.

So what brought former labor minister Charbel Nahas to court this week? He insulted the head of a major corporation after it was accused of intimidating and attacking its own employees.

Nahas is barely visible in this rare photo leaning into the podium just right of attorney Nizar Saghieh. Court proceedings are not videotaped, photographed or recorded.  

Nahhas is accused of defaming Michael Wright, CEO of the massive Spinneys supermarket chain by calling him a “terrorist”in a Facebook post, following reports that workers have been physically abused or fired for attempting to form a union to demand their rights.

The workers had accused Spinneys of failing to implement a government passed wage hike, denying social security benefits for hundreds of its employees and actually collecting daily fees of 5,000LL from its bag handlers for the opportunity to work for Spinneys.  

The formation of the private union was considered a historic event in a country where labor rights are violated with impunity on a daily basis and the Spinneys workers received support from the International Labor Organization as well as Minister Nahas, who helped them create the union.

But activists now say that the Spinneys worker’s union has largely been emptied owing to a vast intimidation campaign by Spinneys management. Activists allege that Wright and his legal team have been sending threatening letters to anyone who likes, blogs or shares critical posts about Spinneys. I have seen a couple of these emails and have also heard testimony from activists who work outside of Spinneys and say they have either lost jobs or been forced into silence after Spinneys lawyers reached out to their bosses and demanded that they cease any activities criticizing the supermarket or its treatment of workers. Much of that has been documented on the site “Spinneys CEO Against Freedoms” created by activists.

But all this did not stop dozens of supporters from attending Minister Nahas’s defamation trial on Wednesday and his defense by the prominent human right’s lawyer Nizar Saghieh. The large crowd of supporters seemed to annoy the Spinneys lawyer, who accused the minister of recruiting court attendees on Facebook.

The judge laughed and said: “Next time, why don’t you invite your supporters via Facebook?”

Nahas addresses the media following the hearing.
Activists supporting Nahas gather outside the courthouse.

The audience had a laugh as well and the judge threw out the complaint noting that court attendance was free and open to the public. This last line was really interesting to me. I never knew court trials were open to the public. In fact, I’d never been to the main courthouse in Adlieh, which is quite a large and impressive building by Lebanese institution standards, though currently under renovation.

Even more interesting was the level of gender equality in the courts. About half of the cloak-wearing attorneys I saw in the hallways were female as were two out of three judges sitting on the bench in the Nahas trial:

The only problem was that it was really hard to hear anything. The large vintage wooden-pane windows were all propped open and, with no speaker system, the voices of both litigants and judges were drowned out by the jackhammers at a nearby construction site.

But a microphone wasn’t the only type of electronics that were desperately lacking. There were no cameras and not even a sound recording of the proceedings. The only record was a handwritten one, penned by the woman in green sitting next to the judges.

Of course all this pales in comparison to the questionable nature in which cases are chosen to be heard. And why is it that we are prosecuting people for criticizing a company’s policies on Facebook instead of prosecuting the myriad of white collar crimes and kickbacks going on nationwide, not to mention the utter public sector corruption that produces a critical lack of basic services such as healthcare, electricity, water, traffic policing and internet access, just to name a few.

Part of the problem seems to be intimidation. Few Lebanese believe in the courts or have the time to fight in them. But perhaps more of us need to start making time to attend trials at this great, seemingly gender progressive courthouse and launching complaints about the leadership that has failed us.

As for the Nahas trial, the next hearing is scheduled for the 11th of December. More updates to come.