Lebanon's first harassment trial since new law to begin on Thursday

Sexual harassment was made a crime in the country last year

An activist takes part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 7, 2019.  - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ABAAD / PATRICK BAZ - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS -
Powered by automated translation

A landmark trial for sexual harassment will begin in Beirut on Thursday, the first since a Lebanese law criminalised the behaviour last year.

Under the new legislation, five women brought complaints in May against Lebanese film director and journalist Jaafar Al Attar, who they accuse of “serial harassment".

Their testimonies went viral on social media, prompting a national outcry and a police investigation.

Plaintiffs and activists hope the case will set a precedent in a country where they say impunity for harassment has long been the norm.

“We want to change the mindset so that victims feel empowered to speak up,” said Ayman Raad, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

“We also hope to change society’s outlook on these behaviours, so that people realise this is not flirting, it’s sexual harassment.”

The accusations drew national attention when actress Tracy Younes posted screenshots on Instagram she said showed their conversations, including the dozens of messages, late-night calls and selfies. Younes' Instagram story was shared thousands of times.

Soon after, more women came forward with claims of sexual harassment, lewd texting and photos. One woman accused Al Attar of rape and another of sexual assault.

Al Attar denies all the claims and has said his actions constitute "an annoyance" rather than abuse.

After the women spoke to local media, the police contacted them to open an investigation, Mr Raad said.

Based on their testimonies, the general prosecution decided to press charges for sexual harassment and move forward with the case. Al Attar faces up to one year in jail if convicted. The general prosecution has not pursued charges for the accusations of sexual assault or rape.

Alia Awada, co-director of Fe-Male, a prominent feminist group in Lebanon, is optimistic about Thursday's trial.

She said the public interest in the case helped to open a conversation about sexual harassment in Lebanon and brought hope that harassers might be held accountable for their actions.

“This is a test for the sexual harassment law,” Ms Awada said. “We hope that harasser will be punished to the extent of their crimes.”

A 2017 UN survey found 60 per cent of Lebanese women reported experiencing incidents of sexual harassment, an issue that activists say is prevalent because of a culture of impunity brought about by a lack of legal protections and legislation for victims.

Human Rights Watch this year described sexual harassment as “a widespread problem in Lebanon".

Lebanon's new law criminalising harassment, passed in December, defines it as a "negative behaviour" of a sexual nature that may or may not be repeated, and targets victims of all genders. It also includes pressuring people to perform sexual acts against their will.

Harassers face a minimum jail sentence of one month and up to four years in prison, with repeat offenders facing terms double the length of their previous sentence.

Journalist Luna Safwan, one of Al Attar's alleged victims, said the response from authorities has surprised her.

“There is a stigma around harassment, so the fact that the judiciary decided to believe us – it means a lot to me," Safwan said. "I felt like I am heard as a woman.

“This gives me a little glimpse of hope that maybe, one day, we will stop automatically assuming that wrong-doers will always get away with their crimes in Lebanon.”

Updated: November 10, 2021, 1:16 PM