The Beirut Bar Association Council’s decision to summon Legal Agenda Executive Director Nizar Saghieh for a hearing on April 20 has caused a real outcry.
This hearing comes after the bar decided on March 3 to prohibit lawyers from speaking to the media without obtaining prior authorization from Beirut Bar Association President Nader Gaspard.
Saghieh, who chairs the Coalition for the Independence of the Judiciary — a collective of organizations and parties fighting for judiciary reform — harshly criticized the decision and filed an appeal with the Beirut Court of Appeals to have it overturned.
The court is expected to render its ruling on May 4.
As an activist and lawyer, Saghieh is known as a fierce advocate for human rights and the independence of the judiciary. He continued to appear in the media, claiming that the decision was a violation of the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution.
His summons to a hearing before the bar’s council is all the more worrying for him, as it could lead to his expulsion from the bar.
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, a person close to the bar’s council said that no decision has yet been made in this regard. However, Saghiyeh believes that his summons, signed by the bar’s Secretary General Saad Khatib, suggests that the council plans to remove him from the bar.
“When a lawyer is suspected of having committed an offense, he is usually summoned to appear before the bar’s disciplinary board, in order to be heard, and [for the board to] take, if necessary, a disciplinary measure,” said Saghieh. “However, as far as I am concerned, this normal way was not used, since it is the whole council that summons me.”“The law regulating the legal profession provides that if the whole council judges that a lawyer no longer upholds standards of trust and dignity necessary to practice the profession, it can decide to disbar him,” he added.
It was circulated on social media that two other lawyers — Youssef Khatib, a member of the pension fund, and Hussein Ramadan — would be summoned by the bar’s council on Tuesday. However, a source close to the council told L’Orient-Le Jour that this information is false, adding that the two lawyers are not being summoned by the whole council.
According to this source, Khatib will simply have to clarify to the president of the bar some points that he had put forward in terms of pensions. Ramadan is subject to a disciplinary measure and will be heard by the Justice Place Commissioner, Imad Martinos, for having made insulting remarks against the bar’s president and its council.
‘Not a restriction on freedoms’
Bar President Nader Gaspard was not immediately available for comment.
Alexandre Najjar, a member of the bar’s council, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the decision to obtain authorization before speaking to the media was made unanimously.
Several members of the council, as well as the bar’s president, are not affiliated with any political parties. Other members include supporters or sympathizers of opposition parties (LF and Kataeb).
“It is necessary to respect the rule, particularly since it is not a restriction on freedoms,” said Najjar. “We have only amended one article of the code of conduct.”
The article in question stated it is “preferable” for any lawyer to “inform” the bar’s president of his or her desire to speak to the press. However, the amended article states that “lawyers shall obtain prior authorization from the bar’s president before taking part in programs of a legal nature, programmed in the media, e-sites or social media.”
Najjar explained that “the rule was amended with a general sense of organization, not in order to muzzle voices.”
“It is similar to an article of the code of medical ethics that regulates the physicians’ media appearances,” he added, arguing that . “prevention is better than cure.”
“Of the 94 requests to speak to the media to the bar’s president since the new rule entered into force, only one was rejected,” noted one member of the bar’s council. “Referring violators to the council would involve more harm than obtaining prior authorization.”This is the answer to the many attorneys who would rather be sanctioned for not respecting the code of conduct than obtain prior authorization.
“The council has always been in the first line of defense of freedoms,” the council member added, deploring “the many disinformation campaigns.”
As soon as the news about summoning Saghieh was revealed last week, many parties, political figures and civil society organizations expressed their disapproval.
The National Bloc (NB) was among the first parties to react.
In a statement, the NB said the general prohibition by the bar’s council would result in “curtailing the attorneys’ professional and individual freedoms ... as well as in arbitrary practices limiting their role ..., especially under the circumstances experienced in the country.”
National Bloc Secretary-General Michel Hélou — former executive director and current board member of L’Orient-Le Jour — tweeted that the Bar Association and freedoms are part of “an inseparable struggle.”
He urged the bar’s council to “reverse its decision to summon Nizar Saghieh, to safeguard the Bar Association, the profession and freedoms.”
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Helou warned against “any risk of disbarment” of Legal Agenda’s executive director, saying that “it would be a fundamental error, especially since it would represent a victory over the role Nizar Saghieh has assumed in the political-judicial battle for the preservation of freedoms and reforming the judiciary.”
The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) also issued a statement criticizing the summons by calling it “ a direct and unjustified attack on the freedom of expression enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights and by the laws in force.”
“The PSP regrets that it comes from a syndicate that the Lebanese expect to block any violation attempt of freedoms,” the statement added, calling on the bar to “reconsider” its decision.
In a joint statement, 14 other parties and NGOs (including National Democratic Party, Lebanese Communist Party, Li Haqqi, Popular Observatory, Mada and Lana) said they stand in “solidarity with freedoms and their defenders.”
Among the MPs who condemned the decision to require lawyers to obtain permission to speak to the media was George Okais (LF), who is also a lawyer.
“In the election that will be held in November to elect the Beirut Bar Association’s president, I will only vote for a president who is committed to reversing the bar’s council’s amendments which will result in restricting the freedom of expression),” said Okais.
Several protest movement MPs also spoke out against the measures.
A planned sit-in on Thursday
The Kataeb party called on the bar’s council to cancel its move.
“We call on the Beirut Bar Associations president and the council’s members to freeze the contentious decision, pending the pressing start of a dialogue between the parties concerned,” said the party in a statement, adding it was ready to facilitate such a dialogue.
For his part, former minister Camille Abousleiman, who is close to the LF, is adamant on the issue.
“The new rules and disciplinary procedures against a prominent lawyer are an unacceptable and unconstitutional restriction on freedom of expression,” Abousleiman wrote in a tweet.
Former March 14 MP Fares Soueid defended the Legal Agenda executive director: “Nizar Saghieh is a human rights lawyer and his presence in the media is important,” he tweeted.
On Monday, the Coalition for the Independence of the Judiciary called for a sit-in on Thursday at 10:30 a.m., in solidarity with Saghieh.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury,
The Beirut Bar Association Council’s decision to summon Legal Agenda Executive Director Nizar Saghieh for a hearing on April 20 has caused a real outcry. This hearing comes after the bar decided on March 3 to prohibit lawyers from speaking to the media without obtaining prior authorization from Beirut Bar Association President Nader Gaspard.Saghieh, who chairs the Coalition for the...