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Lebanese court dismisses political charges against Frontiers Association’s Samira Trad

May 7, 2011

A Lebanese court on 6 May dismissed seven-year-old political charges against refugee rights activist Samira Trad, finally closing a dark chapter in UNHCR’s relations with refugee legal aid organizations.

Trad is the founder and director of Frontiers Association, which has been a leading advocate of legal aid and due process in UNHCR  refugee status determination. In recent years, UNHCR’s office in Beirut has been a leader in RSD reform, and has built a close relationship with Frontiers. But the charges against Trad stemmed from a very different period, when suspicions swirled that UNHCR staff were seeking retribution against a critic.

Beginning in 1999, Trad helped organize international criticism of Lebanon for arrests and deportations of refugees, and by 2002 Lebanese security forces were repeatedly interrogating her and restricting her ability to travel abroad. But Trad also had a rocky relationship with UNHCR’s Regional Office in Beirut, which she criticized for its handling of detention and deportation cases. At the time, UNHCR-Beirut also resisted Trad’s efforts to develop legal aid in refugee status determination.

Lebanese authorities arrested Trad in September 2003 and later charged her with libel against government officials, a common charge used against human rights activists in Arab states. Documents obtained by her lawyers showed that Lebanese authorities acted after receiving complaints and information about her from UNHCR staff, apparently sparking her arrest.

UNHCR’s Inspector General’s Office conducted an investigation of UNHCR’s role in the incident, but the inquiry was inconclusive. Yet relations between Frontiers and UNHCR improved considerably afterward, and UNHCR began welcoming Frontiers’ legal aid in RSD.

In 2007 UNHCR-Beirut began sharing RSD case files with Frontiers’ legal advisors in a pilot project that has been held up as a model for other UNHCR offices. The Beirut pilot marked the first time that a UNHCR office officially shared transcripts and case assessments with asylum-seekers’ legal representatives, creating a first crack in UNHCR’s longstanding policy against such disclosure to applicants.

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