A broken system
When it comes to crimes against children, Lebanon has two sets of laws on the books.
The penal code covers all crimes and considers crimes against adults and minors alike. However, if a crime is committed against a minor, then the penalties against the offender are more severe and increase in severity as the age of the child decreases.
In addition to this, according to article 506 of the Penal Code, if a person is mistreated by someone who has authority over the victim, such as a religious figure or a teacher, the penalties are also more severe.
Then there are the laws on the protection of minors which allow a judge to open cases and investigate if he thinks a minor is being abused. If the judge finds evidence that indicates abuse, then he refers the case to the courts for criminal proceedings.
While these two sets of laws seemingly create a system that would find and convict anyone who abuses children, that hasn’t necessarily been the case on the ground.
“In practice, there are certain things that would hinder access to justice. The first thing is the question of evidence, ”explained Karame of Legal Agenda. “If there is no conclusive evidence, the courts tend to dismiss the case.”
There is also the issue of the limitation period, which is 10 years.
For anyone who is a victim of violence, especially as a minor, the likelihood of reaching the courts before the law expires is slim.
As Akiki herself stated, it took years of therapy before she was ready to talk about her trauma.
Some countries have understood this and have removed the statute of limitations for abuse cases, or extended it until victims reach adulthood. Lebanon did not.
“These countries realized that victims of sex crimes, especially if they were children, would take a long time to be able to talk about the crimes,” said Karame.
The problem with this is that physical evidence is likely to be long gone, making it difficult to bring cases to court.
According to Karame, a disproportionate number of cases of sexual abuse involve people from low-income households, both victims and perpetrators, and very few cases involving upper-class abusers go to court.
As far as Legal Agenda is aware, there are only two other cases of clergy being prosecuted.
In most cases, when an aggressor comes from a wealthy background or has a leading role in society, the cases are dismissed or the aggressor receives a more lenient sentence.
“As far as Legal Agenda is aware, only two other cases of clergymen are being prosecuted,” the lawyer said.
In the rare cases where cases do actually go to court, judges can use their discretion to impose a more lenient sentence on such people.
“[Legal Agenda] found that courts in fact use this power to provide, in some cases, light penalties for perpetrators of sex crimes, ”Karame said. “We really saw a big gap between the different courts. Some courts are extremely lenient. Other courts will provide mitigating circumstances while other courts have been tougher and sort of imposed the maximum sentence. “
Even when a case is presented, officials or politicians are quick to come to the defense of the accused religious figure, and the case quickly turns from an individual abusing a child to a crusade against the whole sect.