Why Is Lebanon Still Using Colonial-Era Laws to Persecute LGBTQ Citizens?

May 31, 2016

By Sarabrynn Hudgins

Many draconian Middle Eastern laws are homegrown constructions, ranging from Jordan’s Penal Code 308, which allows rapists to avoid jail time if they marry their victims, to Saudi Arabia’s infamous ban on women drivers. Others are hangovers of colonialism that Middle Eastern governments have been all too happy to uphold.

Lebanon, long called the Switzerland of the Middle East, fancies itself an exception to Middle Eastern authoritarianism: a bustling, cosmopolitan country that serves as an oasis of co-mingling cultures in an increasingly unstable region. A shame, then, that Lebanon applies long-outdated French laws against minority groups such as its LGBTQ population. It seems surreal that in 2016, the state harasses and tortures its own citizens based solely on their sexual orientation and gender identity., Violence against LGBTQ citizens in Lebanon is shockingly common, and stateside human rights defenders should take notice.

Lebanese Penal Code 534, a historical quirk left over from the French mandate that ended in 1943, enables the state to punish “unnatural” sexual acts. The statute’s vague terminology allows officials to apply the law according to their whims; it is presently used to persecute LGBTQ people, who face up to a year in prison if convicted.

Of course, LGBTQ people aren’t marching into police stations to proclaim their sexual orientation. Instead, when their paths cross with authorities, officials use any pretext (often based on stereotypes relating to appearance, mannerisms, and speech patterns) to justify rifling through suspects’ personal belongings for evidence of homosexuality.

Gay men report having their phones searched at routine checkpoints, only to be arrested and beaten for having gay dating apps like Grindr installed or for possessing nude photos of other men. Belonging to LGBTQ-aligned Facebook groups is also sufficient—even if there is no evidence of having participated in homosexual activities. The Lebanese authorities’ opinion of homosexuality is made evident in the purview of the Morality Police, who oversee cases related to homosexuality, along with other suspects accused of drugs and prostitution.

Even benign legal matters can turn dangerous. A police officer who met with a Syrian man attempting to gather the paperwork needed for refugee resettlement in North America interpreted the refugee’s mannerisms as “uneven,” a code word for effeminate and possibly gay. So the police officer orchestrated a 2014 raid on the hamam (Turkish bathhouse) where the man formerly worked; 27 people were arrested, after which they were subjected to compulsory HIV tests and torture severe enough to incite forced confessions. A similar raid on a movie theater in 2012 saw the arrest of 36 people who endured rectal exams and were lambasted as “perverts” on Lebanese television.

Unfortunately, these incidents of state-sponsored violence are not anomalies. Police often resort to beatings and outright torture in order to elicit confessions. Victims report enduring anti-gay slurs from law enforcement and situations that would constitute entrapment under U.S. law. A Lebanese LGBTQ news outlet reported that in April 2016 a transgender woman was arrested and tied to a chair for three days. A male officer demanded she sleep with him and, had the woman agreed, reportedly planned to use the incident as evidence against her.


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