BEIRUT, 20 Mar 2006 (IRIN) – The in-absentia trial of Lebanese lawyer and human rights activist Muhamad Mugraby began on Monday, in a military court. He is accused of slander for having criticised the authorities use of military courts to prosecute government critics.

Under Lebanese law, any perceived attempt to “undermine the respect due the nation and its institutions” is considered a criminal offence.

"The prosecution of Dr Mugraby casts doubt on Lebanon’s commitment to human rights reform," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director, in a recent statement. "No one should face jail time for peacefully criticising the government or the military."

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists called the trial a “perversion” of the law and called for all charges to be dropped unconditionally. “This process before the military court constitutes an aberration and its article of indictment is a gross violation of fundamental rights,” the commission noted in a statement.

On Monday morning, Mugraby did not know whether the trial was under way because mobile telephones are forbidden in the court. “I don’t expect much,” he said. “I’ve learnt not to forecast the actions of the military officers – they work by a different set of rules.”

Mugraby and his lawyers have filed a list of complaints with the court, explaining why the trial is not, in their view, legitimate. “The most important thing is that Article 20 of the Lebanese Constitution guarantees the right of every Lebanese civilian to a fair trial before a court constituted of judges,” Mugraby said.

“These are military officers.” He went on to say that the charges violated his right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lebanon is a party.

Amnesty International has expressed concern that the case against Mugraby falls within “a pattern of harassment” against the activist, possibly related to his work in defence of human rights. Mugraby has taken on the legal cases of many alleged victims of human rights violations in the past.

In 1995, Mugraby was charged with defaming the state and its judiciary based on a fax he sent to Amnesty International officials, but charges were dropped in 2001. In another case against him, currently before the Beirut Court of Appeals, he stands accused of impersonating a lawyer, a charge he denies.