Stray bullets: What is the Lebanese judiciary doing?

Celebratory gunfire and other stray bullets cause deaths in Lebanon every year, despite being prohibited by law. Are these deaths inevitable or the result of neglect?

Stray bullets: What is the Lebanese judiciary doing?

A child's drawing of a gun. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today/File photo)

More than two dozen people have been struck by stray bullets in Lebanon so far this year, according to a count by L’Orient Today. The below testimony is part of a project by L’Orient Today and L’Orient-Le Jour to document the endemic problem.

Click here to see our ongoing stray bullet tracker and read other testimonies.

Funerals that cause additional deaths, a student shot down during playtime, a young girl injured at a wedding, the fuselage of an airplane pierced mid-flight.

In Lebanon, the slightest social event is often accompanied by celebratory gunfire. While the deadly practice is often denounced, it remains widespread. Some people are killed in hunting accidents or by individual shootings, but the majority of victims are hit by falling bullets.

According to a report by Beirut-based research center Information International, between 2010 and 2021, 81 people were killed and 169 injured by stray bullets fired at weddings, funerals and to a lesser extent, individual altercations. In 2023, seven people have already been killed by stray bullets, according to L’Orient Today’s count. One of them is Naya Hanna, a seven-year-old girl who was hit in the head while playing during recess at school in Hadath, south of Beirut. The source of the fatal shot? Gunfire celebrating the results of the official Lebanese baccalaureate. The disturbing incident shocked the public.

Her death was “the spark,” said MP Adib Abdelmassih, close to Zgharta MP Michel Moawad, who submitted a draft law to Parliament on Aug. 30 bearing the victim’s name. The aim of the law is “to increase criminal penalties provided for under the current law,” which prohibits the shooting of firearms into the air.

Under Law No. 71, passed in 2016, shooting of firearms into the air is punishable with a prison sentence ranging between six months to three years, in addition to a fine equivalent to eight to ten times the official minimum wage and a lifetime ban from owning a firearm. If the shot is fatal, the sentence is commuted to hard labor for a period ranging between 10 and 15 years.

The MP’s proposal, on the other hand, increases the minimum prison sentence to one year and the fine from 10 to 15 times the official minimum wage. In case death ensues, the sentence becomes 15 years of hard labor. However, according to lawyer Houssam al-Hakim, the problem is not the current law in force, but its lack of application by courts.

After shooting in the air, there are two possible scenarios.

Reduced prison sentences

The first scenario involves the absence of a victim or a complaint. In this case, the matter is referred to the military court, under articles 75 and 79 of Decree no. 137 of June 1959, aka the firearms law. However, according to Hakim, “the judges at the military court tend to increase the fine while reducing the prison sentence to one month,” thus departing from the penalties provided for by Law no. 71. Amid the economic crisis, “the judges may feel that it is more effective to take money away from them,” Hakim said. “These trials are not a real deterrent for shooters,” he added.

Lawyer Ali Zamzam, who attended the Oct. 4 session at the military court, said: “Before the 2016 law, the shooters would spend only 10 days in prison and then get out.”

Back then, when the law was first implemented, the six-month prison sentences were handed down, he said. But now, “the court president is handing down one-month prison sentences, accompanied with a fine of LL6 million [around$ 67], gun seizure and lifetime firearms ban,” Zamzam said. He explained that judges often cite the Lebanese Criminal Code to reduce prison sentences. Ghida Frangieh, lawyer and member of The Legal Agenda, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, believes that handing out “reduced prison sentences or [instead increasing] the fines, often has to do with the lack of room in prisons.”

At the entrance to the military court, on the ruling board for Oct. 2, there were two people on trial for firing into the air. One was acquitted and the other was sentenced to one month in prison and charged a LL6 million fine.

The problem of the shooter’s identity

In the second scenario, there is a victim and a complaint is filed. These cases are referred to a civil court.

Nayla Hanna’s father “decided to lodge a complaint against an unknown person,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour, explaining that he was waiting for the investigation’s results before giving any comment.

At Hadath police station, the officer who conducted the preliminary investigation into Hanna’s tragic death told L’Orient-Le Jour that he forwarded the case to Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun.

Judge Aoun told L’Orient Le-Jour that she does not yet have any information on this particular case, but explained the difficulties that the judiciary faces with these types of cases. “The problem is that we don’t know who, of all those who shot to celebrate the official exam, fired the bullet. When I was the president of the Zahle criminal court, I had a case related to a stray bullet, but it was not taken any further for the same reason,” she recalled.

“The victims’ relatives rarely lodge any complaints because it is difficult to identify the person who fired the shot,” despite wanting justice, said lawyer Rafik Ghraizi, founding member of Reform Organization, which brings together jurists, lawyers and journalists committed to institutional reform. For instance, the parents of Veh Christ Harboyan, a young boy injured in January by a stray bullet while playing soccer at a stadium in Bir Hassan, reluctantly decided not to press charges. They discovered that the bullet that pierced Harboyan was fired at a funeral by a group of 12 people, but were unable to identify the exact shooter, they told L’Orient Today.

Abdelmassih’s draft law would do more than simply prosecute shooters. “Given that it is very difficult to identify them, my proposal also provides for prosecuting the organizer of the event or the owner of the place where the shots were fired, or the owner of the weapon used.” According to Judge Aoun, “it’s a good idea to hold the organizers of weddings or funerals at which the shots were fired responsible.”

Changing mindsets

Ghraizi believes that the Lebanese Criminal Code already contains articles that provide a legal response to stray bullet deaths and injuries. He cited Article 547, which states that “anyone who intentionally kills another person shall be punishable by hard labor for a term of between 15 and 20 years.” According to Article 189, “an offense shall be deemed to be intentional, even if the criminal effect of the act or omission exceeds that intended by the perpetrator, if he had foreseen the possibility and thus accepted the risk.”

Finally, Article 200 states that “any attempt to commit a felony (...) shall be considered as the crime itself.” While Ghraizi believes these legal elements are sufficient, “we still need security forces capable of arresting the perpetrators and an independent judiciary to apply the sentences provided for by law.”

“The problem is that there is often political interference in the judicial system, particularly within the military court,” he explained.

According to Abdelmassih, legislative work must be accompanied by a change in mentality. “In order for the law to be ultimately enforced, it must be accompanied with an awareness-raising campaign. The political parties need to urge their followers not to fire into the air at the events they organize,” Abdelmassih said.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient Le-Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

More than two dozen people have been struck by stray bullets in Lebanon so far this year, according to a count by L’Orient Today. The below testimony is part of a project by L’Orient Today and L’Orient-Le Jour to document the endemic problem.Click here to see our ongoing stray bullet tracker and read other testimonies.Funerals that cause additional deaths, a student shot down during...