“I will not stop before Lebanon and all other countries abolish the death sentence”
Sentenced to death in Lebanon in 1994, then exonerated five and a half years later, Antoinette Chahine is now fighting for the abolition of the death penalty.
last February she participated as member of the Lebanese Delegation at the 7th Ensemble Contre La Peine De Mort (ECPM) Congress to protest against the death penalty, along with 1,800 other abolitionists from around the world.
Chahine was arrested at the age of 23 in March 21, 1994, after the bombing of the Notre-Dame de la Delivrance church in Zouk, and was then sentenced to death three years later. She experienced hell in Lebanese jails: the worst forms of physical and psychological torture, thirst and hunger, extreme isolation, and an endless wait on death row. The final verdict exonerated her on June 24, 1999, after five and a half years of detention. “My brother was part of Samir Geagea’s –the leader of the Lebanese Forces- close circle (note: the LF is a Christian political party persecuted by the security apparatus when Lebanon was under Syrian domination), she tells L’Orient-Le Jour. “The then political powers wanted him [her brother] to take the blame and responsibility for the attack on the Church of Delivrance, in an attempt to reach the leader of the LF. So, they arrested me and sentenced me to death, hoping that I would confess to an alleged conspiracy.”
“This is Charles Malek’s country”
Since her arrest at the Ministry of Defense until her transfer to the women’s prison in Baabda, all the way through her incarceration in Jounieh, Antoinette Chahine remembers everything: “the anguish and fear of death row”, “the unfairness of the accusations”, especially “the horror of torture”. “I almost gave in to signing a confession due to exhaustion ( after suffering from constantly being beaten, scalded and tortured)”, but I “picked myself up when the pencil I was about to use to sign fell from my hand”. Almost preferring to die, “I screamed: kill me, I will not sign” she says. Twenty years after regaining her freedom, the former inmate still carries the physical and psychological aftermaths of her ordeal: a leg that always hurts, for “having been infected under torture”, “a dislocated shoulder” aftering enduring the balengo torture. The tears keep coming when the memories are too painful, as she remembers “her mother’s pain”. “My mother is the one who informed me of me my death sentence. She told me that she would spend the rest of her life with me in jail. I understood. I really believed that I would be exonerated. I didn’t do it. I remained silent and paralyzed for a good month”, recalls the activist, who acknowledges the “perseverance” of her family, of international human rights associations led by Amnesty International, by the Maronite Church, and especially by the lawyer Badaoui Abu Dib, who succeeded in getting her acquittal.
Antoinette Chahine will never forget. After having “rediscovered the sun and the fresh air”, after “having healed her wounds abroad”, and thanks to Amnesty International’s funding, she put her bitterness on hold, preferring to be guided by her faith, her optimism and her determination. “I came out of prison, with peace in my heart” she says. “I had the option to live serenely with the people I love. But I want to pass on a message against capital punishment and torture. I want to change things”, she insists. “I will not stop until Lebanon and all the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. As we all know, Lebanon continues to enforce the death penalty, while observing a de facto moratorium since 2004.” In the meantime, the young woman built a family. Her husband and her two teenagers support her unconditionally in her battle. “I am fighting for them, so that they don’t go have to keep on reliving what I went through” she observes. At the same time, she is convinced that “Lebanon deserves better than this. “This is Charles Malek’s country, and not one of barbaric justice.”
With the help of abolitionist states such as France in particular, she undertook courses in human rights at the Sorbonne, attends conferences in order to reach schoolchildren, and commits to work side by side with the French association ECPM, or Together Against the Death Penalty, which organized the last convention that took place in Brussels. Her path, as well as her struggles, will lead France to give her honorary citizenship, as well as the insignia of knight of the National Order of Merit. This latest honor joins a list of many others that are dear to her heart, like that from the Municipality of Hasroun, which named a cedar tree after her. “Sethrida Geagea, wife of the LF’s leader, with whom I cried very often, honored me by comparing me to a Lebanese cedar tree”, she says, full of emotion.
For fair and healthy justice
At the 7th Congress Against the Death Penalty, where portraits of Antoinette Chahine, the well-known French abolitionist Robert Badinter, as well as former death row inmates from around the world stood side by side, all photographed by Christophe Mereis, the activist moved the audience with her testimony. A testimony which, for the occasion, took the form of a dialogue between Antoinette Chahine and another Amnesty International activist, Marie Pelenc, who used to write to her regularly, to help alleviate her loneliness. “For me, who did not see the sun and did not feel the wind, these letters of support were a sign of hope. I have received many from all over the world”, revealed Mrs. Chahine.
The Brussel’s meeting allowed the Lebanese abolitionists, associations, MPs, activists, journalists, as well as Mrs. Chahine, to reconnect and to commit to working together within a national coalition against the death penalty. “At the same time, we must work for a fair and correct justice. As long as the Lebanese do not have trust in their judicial system, they will keep on demanding capital punishment”, insists the activist. The former death row convict will not stop now. She intends to become active in reforming the Lebanese justice system very soon, and is even planning on creating an association “against the slowness of justice”.
(This article was originally in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 18th of March)