November 1, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)
Free Muhamad Mugraby
Officially, Lebanon is now free, and its former Baathist overlords in Syria are isolated from the international community following initial findings by United Nations investigators that high-ranking Syrian government officials and their Lebanese sidekicks were behind the bomb murder in February of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri. A Security Council resolution passed unanimously on Monday requires Syria to stop obstructing the U.N. investigation. The Syrian army officially left Lebanon this spring.
But Syria still casts a long shadow across Lebanon–a nation on the front lines of the struggle to shed despotism in the Middle East. In that gloom, rocked by the recent series of bombs targeting Lebanese patriots, one finds the case of one of Lebanon's leading human rights lawyers, Muhamad Mugraby. Months after the Cedar Revolution and Syria's official pullout, Mr. Mugraby is facing prosecution in a Beirut military court for his criticism two years ago, in Brussels, of the Syrian-backed Lebanese regime.
Lebanon's government remains stacked by Syria. And if the same international community now “isolating” Damascus does nothing to insist that Beirut honor its various agreements with the European Union to respect basic liberties, Mr. Mugraby may yet go to prison.
Mr. Mugraby's alleged offense is that two years ago, in testimony to the European Parliament, he dared to defend the rights of Lebanese–and Arabs generally–to liberty and rule of law. This is the kind of behavior and vision long brushed off by State Department Arabists and assorted Middle East-expert types as uppity and inconvenient. In truth, not only is it courageous; it is proving a powerful guide to the undercurrents of the Middle East–not least to such events as the high voter turnouts this year in Iraq and the massive demonstrations this spring in Beirut for truth, democracy and freedom from Syria's fascist sway.
The 66-year-old Mr. Mugraby has spent much of his career courting this sort of trouble. He studied at Columbia Law School in New York in the 1960s, and returned to his native Beirut–in those days the freest and brightest spot in the Arab world–to practice law. In the early 1970s, Yasser Arafat arrived in Lebanon, bringing his trademark carnage with him. In 1975, Lebanon descended into violence that soon after gave Syria its opening to invade, and, with the assent of the world community, to dig in–running a ruthless secret police force, disappearing Lebanese dissidents into Syrian jails, and serving as a corridor for traffic between terrorists based in Lebanon and their mentors in Iran.
Against this backdrop, Mr. Mugraby, at great risk, made it his mission to keep pointing out “the basics, including the basics of citizenship, democracy and human rights,” as he wrote to me recently. Himself a Sunni Muslim, Mr. Mugraby presents these basics not as a function of any religion or ethnic group, but as the rightful claims of all mankind. Way back in 1986, he wrote a letter, published in the New York Times, disagreeing with received wisdom that the Lebanese war was fundamentally a Christian-Muslim conflict. Instead, he argued, “the events in Lebanon are the continuing tragedy of a peaceful, free, cultured, pluralistic and courageous nation struggling to survive aggression and subversion by more powerful neighbors.”
In April, 1989, just six months before the international community nodded assent to Syria's grab for Lebanon via the Taif Accord, Mr. Mugraby wrote another letter to the New York Times:
The thundering guns are not “Muslim” and “Christian” (as asserted in recent headlines), but Syrian and Lebanese. Syrian batteries are manned by merciless invaders, firing indiscriminately on Lebanese targets, while the Lebanese guns are manned by patriotic defenders shooting in self-defense on the military positions of the aggressors. Many of these Lebanese soldiers and officers are Muslims who risk their lives for their country like their Christian brethren and co-citizens.
This spring, 16 years after Mr. Mugraby wrote that letter, the Lebanese astonished the world with their mass demonstrations, in which Muslims and Christians came together in Beirut's Martyr's Square. They made common cause in demanding truth and freedom, and they came waving a host of red white and green Lebanese flags. They wanted their country back.
During the years of blatant Syrian occupation, knowing that the main Beirut secret police offices and torture chambers were just around the corner from his family home, Mr. Mugraby had repeatedly put himself in jeopardy by taking on cases of Lebanese citizens persecuted by the Syrian regime. He represented the families of people disappeared into the dungeons of Syria for what the Damascus-backed authorities deemed the offense of any contact with neighboring democratic Israel. Mr. Mugraby called attention to government corruption, and fought it in the courts. He argued for the rights of prisoners of conscience.
Ultimately Mr. Mugraby himself was jailed by the regime. In the summer of 2003, he was arrested on charges of “impersonating a lawyer,” and held for three weeks, first in a basement cell of the Beirut Palais de Justice, then in the infamous Roumieh prison–where he spent his time trying to help other prisoners, held incommunicado, get word to their families.
Following an international outcry, Mr. Mugraby was freed. A few months later, in November 2003, he visited Brussels and testified to the European Parliament about the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment. He said that his purpose was not only to thank those who had supported him, “but also, and more importantly, to discuss why and how oppressive regimes make such arrests.” They do this, he explained, because “to maintain an atmosphere of fear, they must commit highly visible acts of repression every so often, in order to remind the people that they expose themselves to grave danger if they think or attempt to defy or displease the rulers.”
Taking notes on Mr. Mugraby's doings in Brussels was a secretary from the Lebanese Embassy there, who the next day dispatched a report to the Foreign Ministry in Beirut, recounting both Mr. Mugraby's testimony and the gist of a meeting he had afterward with a European Commission official, Alain Seater. In translation from the original Arabic, the report summed up that Mr. Mugraby, in that meeting, “repeated what he already said about the bad situation of the judicial body and the regime in Lebanon. He also criticized the prevailing situation in Arab countries and considered that these countries should exert great efforts in order to become democratic along with due respect of human rights, and Mr. Seater merely listened to him.”
Mr. Mugraby then went home to Beirut, where he soon found himself under fresh threat of prosecution. This past February, two weeks after the assassination of Hariri, Lebanese authorities detained Mr. Mugraby for more than 10 hours to question him about his Brussels visit. In June, he was charged with defaming the Lebanese military, and a hearing has now been scheduled for early January, before a military court. In a recent phone conversation detailing this latest turn of events, Mr. Mugraby asks, “Is Syrian hegemony really over?” The test is not only whether Syria allows the U.N. investigation to proceed, but even more importantly whether Lebanese patriots themselves, such as Mr. Mugraby, will be remain free to do their part for liberty and law in the Middle East.
Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.