‘Cautiously optimistic’: First criminal case filed under Lebanon's sexual harassment law is closely watched

Activists demonstrate against domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment in Beirut on Dec. 7, 2019. (Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP)

BEIRUT — Earlier this year, more than 20 Lebanese women took to social media with allegations of sexual harassment against Jaafar al-Attar, a well-known local activist, journalist and director.

A group of seven of the alleged victims filed a lawsuit against Attar in May. Before the lawsuit was filed, police had already opened a criminal investigation, and last week the public prosecutor formally charged Attar with sexual harassment and referred the case to the criminal court in Beirut.

Attar has maintained his innocence, saying that his actions — which the women had described as repeated unwanted messages, phone calls and sexual advances — constituted an “annoyance,” not sexual harassment.

The case will be closely watched by legal experts and women’s rights advocates as it is the first to be tried under Lebanon’s new sexual harassment law, which took effect in January.

“This case will put the new sexual harassment law to the test,” Leila Awada, a lawyer with the NGO Kafa (enough) Violence and Exploitation told L’Orient Today.

Last December, Parliament passed a landmark law criminalizing sexual harassment and approved amendments to the existing law on domestic violence.

The new law sets a penalty of one to 12 months in prison and/or a fine that ranges between three and 10 times the official minimum wage of LL675,000 for anyone convicted of sexual harassment, with higher penalties stipulated when the crime is committed against a minor or a person with special needs, or in a workplace setting.

The law is also the first in the region to include cyber-harassment in its definition of the crime, which Ayman Raad, the plaintiff’s lawyer, called a “milestone” — and which makes it applicable to the Attar case since much of the alleged harassment took place via messaging services.

A new path to justice

Previously, when victims would open up to the media about alleged sexual harassment, the public prosecution had no duty to intervene, and there was no law allowing police to open and investigation without an official complaint from a victim, said Awada. This was only made possible with the passage of the new law, which attorneys said has introduced new ways to advance sexual harassment cases.

Before the passage of the sexual harassment law, since harassment was not a crime in itself, harassers used to be sued instead for slander, defamation, and threats, Awada said.

“Thus, each judge had some freedom to rule based on how sensitive he is to cases of harassment,” she said.

Raad said the new law had made a difference in the Attar case early on; the public prosecutor’s office took action as soon as the social media reports came out and even prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

“The public prosecution asked victims to head to the moral crimes office and report on their cases as an investigative record was opened,” he said.

After the women testified in the moral crimes office, “two witnesses were then asked to go to the office at the police station to give their testimonies. One witness was named by the victims, while the other was suggested by the suspect,” added Raad. “Jaafar was also interrogated at the moral crimes office before the case was sent to the public prosecution.”

In message in response to a request for comment from L'Orient Today, Attar said he would leave the case for the judiciary to deal with and that he will face the women who complained about him in court. He added that the portions of his conversations with the women that have been published do not tell the full story.

In previous public statements, he had said that his contacts with the alleged victims had were an “annoyance” but did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.

“Jaafar was continuously blocked on social media and messaging apps, but persisted in creating new ones to communicate with the ladies blocking him,” Raad told L’Orient Today. This is key, he said, since in most cases, to fit the definition in the new sexual harassment law, the harassment must be a recurring behavior.

MP Inaya Ezzeddine (Amal/Sur), the head of Parliament's Women and Children's Committee said that her committee had carefully drafted the law to criminalize the act of sexual harassment no matter what the means of communication: verbal, physical, through social media or digital platforms.

Ezzeddine also noted that if convicted, the harasser could face tougher penalties if the harassment took place during work-related communications; some of the alleged harassment in Attar's case took place in the context of discussions about work. If harassment is committed in a work setting, the penalty is six months to two years of imprisonment, or a fine ranging between 10 to 20 times the official minimum wage.

“The law was drafted and submitted under the committee's slogan of protecting and empowering women, especially in the workplace,” Ezzeddine said. “We didn’t want women to lose job opportunities because of instances of sexual harassment.”

Legal gaps remain

Although the new law has allowed the Attar case to move forward, attorneys pointed out some limitations in practice.

Raad recommends that the law be amended to ensure privacy of the plaintiffs because as it stands, details of the case, including the identity of the victims, can be made public, "which may cause women who prefer their privacy to retract from filing lawsuits, especially since our society tends to slander and defame victims of sexual harassment.”

He added, “One of the victims who went to the moral crimes office to testify was terrorized, especially since it was her first time to open up about her experience.”

He recommended integrating specialists to support and guide the victims during the process of filing a complaint and going to court.

Awada noted that since the law also covers sexual harassment against men, some male harassers could attempt to turn it against their victims. The law could enable “suspects who are men to testify against the victim and accuse her of initiating harassment.”

Ezzeddine, however, argued that this is not a weakness in the law but a test of the investigation’s integrity.

“The suspect's claims are not enough evidence for a charge,” she said. “The court investigates the plaintiff's and suspect's claims and looks into evidence while questioning witnesses to find the truth. Besides, there is another law in the Lebanese Constitution that punishes people for lying in their allegations.”

She added the Women and Children's Committee will follow up on the case to see how the law works in practice.

“The committee previously promised to update the law if we spot any flaw during practice,” she said.

A long wait ahead

Those watching the case to see how the new law is applied may have a long wait ahead

“We have to wait and see how the court will deal with and rule on the case,” Awada said, “because until now the case hasn't proceeded to the trial phase, and it goes without saying that court trials take a lot of time in Lebanon.”

Besides the slow bureaucracy in courts and public administrations in Lebanon, this case was delayed due to a backlog of cases in police stations and at the court as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. Strikes held by court staff and lawyers also slowed the process, Raad said.

In addition, Attar was also abroad when the case was first filed, which made it hard for the police at the moral crimes office to notify him about the open record for him to come and testify, said Raad.

Despite the delays, one of the plaintiffs, Lebanese journalist Luna Safwan, tweeted that “the path is not easy in Lebanon, but our case against this harasser is on the right track.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Safwan told L’Orient Today, adding that sexual harassment can only be ended through the judicial system and by punishing the harassers and fighting impunity.

“This case can set an example,” Safwan said. “The law should be followed in all its details because it was [passed] for a reason. We will have to wait and see how the law will be applied.”

This story has been updated to include a comment from Jaafar al-Attar.

BEIRUT — Earlier this year, more than 20 Lebanese women took to social media with allegations of sexual harassment against Jaafar al-Attar, a well-known local activist, journalist and director.A group of seven of the alleged victims filed a lawsuit against Attar in May. Before the lawsuit was filed, police had already opened a criminal investigation, and last week the public prosecutor formally...