Lebanon: Beirut lawyers call two-day strike after colleague’s arrest

New controversy comes after weeks of simmering tensions in a deeply politicised judiciary

Melhem Khalaf

The Beirut Bar Association called for a two-day strike in protest against what they described as the illegal arrest of lawyer Rami Ollaik on Thursday by unidentified men in civilian clothes.

Mr Ollaik was recently at the centre of a politicised court case seen as a proxy power struggle between judges who support prime minister-designate Saad Hariri and those who side with President Michel Aoun.

The two men have quarrelled openly for the past eight months over the formation of a new Cabinet.

The High Judicial Council, Lebanon's top court of 10 judges, advised public prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury to prosecute Mr Ollaik for slandering the High Judicial Council and state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, the National News Agency (NNA) reported on Wednesday.

The state-run agency did not specify which comments the High Judicial Council was referring to.

But Mr Ollaik refused to be questioned by the information division of the local police, or Internal Security Forces, and asked for a review of his case by the Beirut Bar Association.

The association said Mr Ollaik was arrested as he was walking to its offices near the Justice Ministry on Thursday.

“Unidentified civilians took him violently towards an unknown destination,” they said, calling for a two-day strike on Friday and Monday.

The arrest is illegal because Lebanese law stipulates that the public prosecutor must ask the Beirut Bar Association for authorisation before interrogating a lawyer, a source at the association told The National.

The Tripoli Bar Association declared a one-hour strike on Friday morning in rejection of “transgression or violation of legal norms”, in an apparent reference to Mr Ollaik’s arrest.

The NNA reported that Mr El Khoury interrogated Mr Ollaik at the Justice Palace on Friday morning during a “tumultuous session”.

Mr El Khoury then referred him to Beirut’s first investigative judge, Charbel Abu Samra, and charged him with “slander and disparagement of the judiciary”.

In a statement relayed by supporters, Mr Ollaik called himself a “prisoner of conscience” and denounced his “arbitrary and illegal arrest”.

Activists say that the Lebanese justice system has never been fully independent, because judges owe their jobs to politicians, who govern the country along sectarian lines.

Mr Oueidat was appointed by a government decree in late 2019, weeks before Mr Hariri resigned as prime minister in the face of nationwide anti-government protests.

But tensions within the judiciary have been increasing in the past weeks as Lebanon’s economic collapse accelerates. Politicians from all sides blame each other for corruption and for causing the country’s troubles. These divisions are reflected across Lebanese society.

Mr Ollaik is the legal representative of a group of activists called Scream of Depositors, which filed a lawsuit last month against central bank governor Riad Salameh, his top aides and one of the country’s biggest exchange offices, accusing them of money laundering and illicit enrichment.

The group’s efforts were supported by Judge Ghada Aoun, who is close to President Aoun. She has publicly defied Mr Oueidat, who has repeatedly stalled her investigation into financial crimes.

Mr Salameh, an ally of Mr Hariri, is the target of mounting public anger since Lebanese banks started running low on US dollars in 2019, restricted access to deposits and banned transfers abroad.

President Aoun has repeatedly criticised Mr Salameh and called for an audit of the central bank.

Mr Ollaik previously denied that the complaint filed against Mr Salameh was politicised. "We're just concerned about the rights of the people," he told The National in April.

On Wednesday, Mr Ollaik lambasted Mr Oueidat for arresting Charbel Razzouk, an activist in Mr Aoun’s political party, the Free Patriotic Movement.

Mr Razzouk had hung a giant banner printed with Mr Oueidat’s face that read “What have you done, Ghassan?” and “Protecting corruption files makes you a partner in crime”.

The banner also showed a picture of Beirut port's grain silos, destroyed by a deadly explosion last August that is still under investigation.

Lawyers affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement condemned Mr Ollaik’s arrest on Thursday, saying it did not respect “basic human rights and laws”.

The High Judicial Council's decision this week to prosecute Mr Ollaik will probably be the last in a long time.

The mandate of seven of the 10 judges expired on Friday, and replacements suggested by the caretaker justice minister have not been approved because of political infighting.

In the meantime, the High Judicial Council cannot meet.