A small group of friends and supporters were waiting at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri airport Sunday evening for the arrival of Lebanese journalist Rami Aysha. But they weren’t the only ones. Lebanese immigration and security were also there. They took him into custody and on Monday, for the second time this year, Aysha appeared before a military judge, charged with purchasing firearms.
As it turned out, there’s good news and not-so-good news. Aysha had been sentenced to six months in prison and fully expected to serve the sentence in full.
Monday, a military judge changed his sentence to two weeks in prison and released him for time served. But that’s not enough for Aysha, who tweeted me: “I didn’t get innocence I got two weeks in prison (which I already served) tomorrow we go back court to rise my case to supreme court.” Tuesday, he’ll appeal his case in Lebanon’s supreme court.
Aysha, a Lebanese journalist, has worked for some well-known media outlets, including TIME, Australia’s ABC and Der Spiegel. Last August, while investigating arms trafficking from Lebanon to Syria, he believed he had found the source of the weapons in a southern suburb of Beirut.
On August 30, 2013, men Aysha says were Hezbollah agents stopped Aysha at gunpoint after he tried to film a transaction between weapons suppliers and traffickers. Aysha says they tortured him for three hours, then turned him over to Lebanese intelligence, who also interrogated and tortured him.
“Torture means torture,” he said when I asked. “But what I have faced in the first three hours of my kidnapping was more than torture. I had two broken ribs, broken finger and nose, and bruises all over my body. After I was transferred to the Intelligence Department, I was tortured as well, and they broke my nose, and I was bleeding without getting any treatment.”
He was released from jail September 27 on bail of 1 million Lebanese pounds ($663) pending trial before a military court on a charge of purchasing firearms.
On November 20, he flew to Thailand, where he would be working for two weeks with Australian Broadcasting on “Trading Misery,” a documentary about human smuggling.
“Before I left, I made an appeal for the judge to postpone my trial until I returned back,” Aysha said. “And I was surprised when he refused and I was shocked when I knew I was sentenced in absentia for six months.”
Reporters Without Borders has called for Lebanon to be withdraw the charges and overturn his conviction. “As a journalist, Aysha was doing a story on arms trafficking when arrested. It is crucial that the Lebanese judicial authorities distinguish between journalistic investigation and illicit trafficking,” the rights group said.
The Switzerland-based rights group Alkarama says, “Trials of civilians before military courts such as Aysha’s trial cannot be regarded as fair. Under article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal.”
Just hours before he left Thailand Friday, Rami said he was flying home, even if he knew what was waiting for him. “I will return back because I know I am innocent,” he said.
“It will be much easier to fight for my case in the country, rather than fighting it from a distance,” he said. “I don’t want to be a fugitive for the rest of my life and I want everyone to know I am innocent of all charges against me.”