BEIRUT: Syrian singer Assala Nasri was detained on June 25 for possession of cocaine in her makeup bag at the Rafic Al-Hariri International Airport while on her way to Egypt.
Nasri tested positive for narcotics but was released on bail a few hours later.
Her case, however, still did not reach the misdemeanor’s court yet.
Annahar sat down with Hussein Kazan, head of the Criminal Law Department at MENA City Lawyers, to talk about the legal ramifications of drug arrests. The lawyer highlighted how Lebanese courts don’t follow the penal code by the letter as drug penalties can differ from one case to another.
Kazan answered questions asked by many as to the step-by-step procedures to what an alleged drug possession defendant will undergo with the police, courts, and what rights they have under the systems.
What happens if you are caught possessing drugs in the airport or somewhere else?
“At the airport or elsewhere, a suspect is arrested for drug possession or may be detained and forced to undergo a drug test if he has a drug-related history in his criminal record (English for ‘Nachra’), authorities then issue an arrest warrant (English for ‘Mouzakarit Tawqif’.”)
Kazan added that “If you are at the airport, authorities cannot investigate you there; you are taken to the judicial office, particularly the Anti-Drug Bureau unit (or in colloquial Lebanese Maktab el Ijra’at Wel Tahqiq).
The lawyer highlighted that defendants are then assigned an investigator and a general prosecutor, adding that “by law, you are to be held at this station for a maximum of four days, until the investigator deals with you.”
Soon after, the drug bureau orders a drug test for the defendant who is allowed to make one phone call either to his family, doctor or lawyer.
However, Kazan noted that people do not need to be directly arrested for personal drug use to be tested. “I had a client who went to the police station to claim a lost driving license, the investigator noticed a previous personal drug use in his criminal record and ordered a drug test from the Drug Bureau to make sure he or she was still negative,” he said.
Why are people detained in the police station for more than a week sometimes?
“Like I said previously, the maximum detention period in the judicial office is four days, as per the law,” said Kazan.
However, there are tens of detainees in Lebanon on a daily basis, the general prosecutor and the assigned investigator “simply do not have time to follow the four-day rule.”
He continued “Or else, the investigator would have to look at 50 cases a day instead of ten. This is why detained people can sometimes stay up for a month waiting for the investigator to look at their case. And so this is an example of law violation before the case reaches court.”
Last year, the drug-addiction treatment center, Skoun, launched a campaign dedicated to youngsters advocating their rights against abuse in the police station, is it realistically doable for a detainee to defend his or her rights?
“The thing is the arrested person will seem guilty if they refuse to give an unwarranted phone search or to do a drug test even if it is their right. But when it comes to verbal and physical abuse by investigators, this is a violation of the law. The arrested (person) is always to be respected and treated like a human in all cases. However, in Lebanon, authorities resort to torture when needed, in order to receive information that is often not necessarily true.”
Kazan added, “I had a case of a man who was tortured and started giving out false confession as he was begging for mercy, he passed out, so the general prosecutor called the Red Cross. When his case reached court, his lawyer proved that the written statement or testimonial (mahdar/ifedeh) that the arrested had signed was false as he was violently pushed to say things.”
The lawyer explained, “The defense lawyer proved to the judge that the statement was false as he traced the Red Cross phone call that was made by the General Prosecutor. The court decided to arrest the general prosecutor as he violated the law and the man’s human rights.
In this case, the detainee was lucky enough, but usually, authorities who resort to torture most of the time get away with it for the job to be ‘done’.”
What do you advise young people if they are enduring any abuse of their rights?
“I advise the arrested to double check their testimony before they sign it, in order to make sure that the court is getting the real testimony and to always have a copy of all the documents related to their case,” Kazan noted.
What is the penalty for personal drug use? Is it possible for the court to allow treatment in a rehabilitation center?
Usually, when a person is charged with personal use they have the right to demand treatment from the court.
Kazan stated that “Lebanon’s drug law, passed in 1997 stipulates that drug users have the choice between treatment and incarceration. Article 183 of the drug law allows drug users the option of presenting themselves before a state-administered Drug Addiction Committee (DAC), a body tasked with referring drug users to government-affiliated treatment centers and responsible for following up on the progress of their treatment.”
“If the committee rejects the treatment request, drug users will have to spend three months to three years in jail with a possible fine, per article 127 of the Lebanese drug laws,” highlighted the lawyer.
What is the penalty for distribution (Terwij) and dealing (Tijara)?
Distribution and dealing are considered a (criminal) act involving the movement, sale and exchange of drugs that can lead to at least five years in jail or a lifetime sentence. "If you were caught with five grams or five kilograms, you will undergo the same judiciary procedure, which I think here rest the unfairness,” Kazan said.
Kazan added that “If you, for example, had drugs planted on you, without your knowledge, or did it on purpose: you are dealing with at least five years in prison with a possible fine.”
Are penalties for minors the same? Or does anything change?
“The law and regulations are the same for minors, but usually the judge orders half of the sentence for teenagers less than 18 years old, in the hopes that less jail time will not ruin their future. So for example, the judge can order 2.5 years of jail time for distribution rather than five years,” Kazan stated.
What would you have done if you were the judge for Assala’s case?
“If I were the judge for Assala’s case, I wouldn’t have let her go as they did. Her case reached the Judicial and General prosecution stage but still hasn’t reached court. I would have ordered a six-month imprisonment because she is a public figure, who is the idol of many,” said Kazan.
He said that the fact that they did not penalize her sets a negative example, for the younger generation of fans who might be considering going into drugs because it now seems to be is easy to get away with it.
“I would have also ordered to look into who gave her the drugs (in her possession) because I suspect it is the same dealer who distributes to other celebrities,” he added.
Is it the lab’s job to warn the police or government if a patient tested positive with drug substances?
“Yes, it is the lab’s job to give a note to the government. But they do not necessarily do it here, as sometimes they put the blame on the substances in the medication that the patient is consuming- in defense of his confidentiality. If a patient checks himself to rehab, the addiction center will not alert the police, as the victim of drug abuse will be undergoing treatment anyways.”
The Lebanese addiction center Skoun’s coordinator Sandy Mteirik said: “There are damaging long-term effects of criminalizing those who use drugs: stigma, discrimination, fewer rights to education, lower chances of employment, fewer opportunities to seek treatment services, prison overcrowding.”
The NGO works to protect people’s right to treatment as an alternative to prosecution as outlined in articles 127 and 194 in the Lebanese drug law.
Annahar correspondent Khaled Rajeh contributed to this report.
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