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source: dailystar.com.lb

author: Meris Lutz

 

Judge Randa Kfoury is likely a welcome sight for anyone facing criminal drug charges in Lebanon. As head of the long-awaited National Committee for Combating Addiction, Kfoury is responsible for making sure drug addicts are given the option to seek treatment and in so doing avoid jail time and the stigma of conviction.

“[People] should look to the law, know their rights, and know that [the committee] ... can save them from this thing they’ve fallen into,” Kfoury told The Daily Star during a recent interview at the Justice Ministry.

Just moments into the interview, she is approached by a shy young man clutching a folder full of papers, his father a few steps behind. Although the case is old, the trial has not yet taken place, and he may still have time to avoid conviction if he seeks treatment from a government-approved facility. Kfoury gently instructs him how to fill out the paperwork, and sends him on his way with an encouraging smile.

“We spared them. These youths, who are really just kids sometimes, still in high school or the first years of university, were going to jail,” she said after he had left. “Rather than putting them in jail, why not get them treatment so they can rid themselves [of addiction]?”

Kfoury estimated the five-member council had processed some 37 cases since the beginning of 2013 when it was finally activated, 15 years after Law 673 was passed. Kfoury is joined on the council by Col. Adel Mashmoushi, the head of the anti-drug division of the Interior Ministry, one representative from each of the Social Affairs and Health ministries, as well as one from the Um al-Nourassociation, a nonprofit drug treatment organization.

Law 673, also known as the 1998 law or simply the drug law, stipulated the formation of the council to review cases involving drug use – not buying or selling – with an eye toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.

The council was intended to act as a liaison between the various concerned parties, including the police, the Health Ministry, the judiciary and the treatment centers. Most cite a lack of coordination as the reason for why the body remained ink on paper from 1998 until 2013.

According to the law, individuals charged with drug use have the option to petition the council for treatment at an approved facility at the government’s expense. But until last year, no government facilities existed, and the non-governmental or private centers lacked an official mechanism for communicating with the courts.

In the absence of a functioning council, some judges took personal initiatives. An article written by Judge Nazik al-Khatib in the March 2013 edition of the Legal Agenda, a nonprofit human rights publication, recounted her experience working with Skoun Lebanese Addictions Center, a Beirut-based non-governmental treatment center.

Judge Munir Suleiman in Batroun took a more radical stance, opting to dismiss charges against those who committed to treatment, as opposed to simply suspending the sentence, in which case the conviction is still listed on the user’s permanent record.

But Khatib and Suleiman were exceptions to the rule. During the 15-year interim when the council was not activated, thousands of people were denied their legal rights, and many are still living with the consequences.

According to the Legal Agenda article, some 2,000 people a year are charged with taking drugs.

Hadi, [not his real name], who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was fired from his job and could not find another with a drug charge on his record, although he sought treatment on his own.

“With the security situation as it is, everyone asks for your records,” even private companies, he lamented.

Hadi said he was arrested about five months ago in Dikwaneh when he tried to report he had been robbed. Rather than arresting the young men who robbed him, the police took Hadi to the station where he was subjected to a urine test, which showed traces of cocaine and hashish.

Hadi remained in jail for nearly a week and claims he was denied his right to call his family. When he complained to the judge about his treatment, the judge allegedly told him, “What human rights? Don’t you know you’re in Lebanon?”

Despite the fact that his family contacted a prominent drug treatment center which petitioned the court on Hadi’s behalf, the judge refused to consider treatment in his sentencing. Hadi was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

“If I had given him LL2 million I would have walked out,” he said. “In prison I saw everything. Phones, the guards bring it in, drugs, the guards bring it in, everything, the guards bring it in. Who else?”

Hadi blamed the economic and political instability in the country for pushing young people to use drugs.

“In Lebanon, if you have money, you can do anything,” he said. “The situation of the country, the security situation – there’s no jobs, they’re oppressing people, there’s killing every day. Five killed there, 10 here, RPGs ... this is no life.”

Stories like Hadi’s are not uncommon. According to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday, individuals detained on drug charges (or sex work) are far more likely to face abuse in detention. The report included testimonies from sources who reporting being physically, sexually and verbally abused, and sometimes forced into confession.

Despite these and other obstacles, stakeholders say concrete progress is being made.

Last year, Dahr al-Basheq hospital opened the first public detoxification facility and now conducts preliminary evaluations for all of the cases that come before the committee. The Rafik Hariri public hospital in Beirut is also preparing a detox facility, but is not yet accepting patients. Neither hospital offers long-term nonresidential treatment, and most drug users who are not suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms are referred to one of six or seven approved private or nonprofit centers. Um al-Nour announced Thursday the opening of its first nonresidential facility.

Nadya Mikdashi, co-founder and director of Skoun, described the activation of the council as a “huge step forward.”

“[Drug users] having contact with some psychological or social entity will hopefully be much more effective than pure penalization,” she said. “All the evidence points to the ineffectiveness of penalizing drug use.”

However, Mikdashi said there was still room for improvement.

For example, over half of drug-related arrests involve cannabis, which is less addictive and requires a different approach to other substances such as heroin, she said.

Skoun, in partnership with other organizations and stakeholders, has drawn up several amendments which it would like to see addressed as soon as the next government is formed, including clearer legal distinctions between drug use, facilitation and trafficking, and stricter protections for users’ privacy.

The proposal also calls for the decentralization of the committee to increase access outside Beirut.

For her part, Judge Kfoury said more centers and financial support were needed, and that she had already submitted a provision before the government collapsed to amend the law to allow for old cases to be re-examined and the records expunged.

Her ultimate goal, she said, is to remove any and all financial burdens on the drug user. The Health Ministry currently covers 85 percent of the cost of the the Dahr al-Basheq facility, with the patient left to pay the remaining 15 percent. Most patients end up paying an average of LL250,000, according to the hospital’s general director, Dr. Roger Hamoush.

image: shutterstock.com
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