Fears over civil liberties in Lebanon after allegations of military abuse
Beirut- Alleged attacks on protesters and refugees in Lebanon raised questions about civil freedoms in Lebanon, with human rights observers saying they are concerned that official investigations into the incidents may fail to punish abuses of power.
The Lebanese military has denied allegations of torture after four Syrian refugees died in army custody following a raid at a refugee camp near the north-eastern city of Arsal. The military said the men died of “chronic health problems that were activated as a result of weather conditions.”
A few weeks previously, demonstrators protesting a third extension to the parliamentary session claimed to have been beaten and verbally abused by armed guards during at least three incidents near the municipality building in Beirut.
Both instances sparked official investigations.
Civil society groups said they feared the incidents would discourage the Lebanese public from voicing anger and frustration over perceived official mismanagement. In recent months, Lebanon has seen tensions rise over the delayed elections, widespread rubbish dumping, pollution and building on the capital’s few remaining public spaces. During the summer of 2015, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons were deployed against demonstrators protesting the rubbish crisis that saw refuse mount in stinking piles on streets throughout the capital.
During the recent clashes in Beirut, video footage produced by demonstrators showed approximately five heavily armed men in green fatigues beating protesters lying on the ground. Georges Abou Fadel, one of those injured in the attack, said: “They were beating the hell out of us. There was a shower of hits coming down on me. I could hear it but couldn’t feel anything except my legs.” Fadel claimed he was dragged by his hair for approximately 15 metres before he seized the leg of his attacker.
In a report by Lebanon’s state news agency, Parliamentary Police accused the protesters of attempting to break through a security barrier, assault guards and take a gun from an officer. However, no video or photo evidence shows physical injury to guards and the protesters denied police claims.
Official investigations have been ordered into both the alleged attacks on protesters and the death of the Syrian refugees. In comments to Human Rights Watch, the Lebanese Army distanced itself from the officers involved, claiming they followed the orders of the parliamentary police and only have an “administrative” link to the armed forces. They confirmed that military police were cooperating with the investigation.
Last year, Lebanon’s Interior Minister warned police that they would face disciplinary action if they were found to be abusing their powers while dealing with Syrian refugees, after photos of alleged ill-treatment during a raid appeared online.
Human rights groups have expressed concern over a lack of transparency in previous investigations into alleged abuse by the security forces. “We are in a country where the authorities are very interested in opening investigations but less interested in finishing them or publishing the results,” Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said. “Maybe behind closed doors, people are being held accountable but, if that is the case, why not be transparent and publish the results of investigations?”
HRW said more individuals are being punished for critical speech. While Lebanon’s constitution protects freedom of assembly, it is illegal to defame or criticise the president, army and public officials. In March, activist Ahmad Amhaz was arrested and imprisoned for nine days and had to pay $331,236 bail for a Facebook post comparing the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament to various animals.
“It is difficult to say all of this is getting worse because there are no statistics or numbers but HRW is documenting an increase in cases of arrests for critical speech,” Khawaja said.
“This [violence against protesters] will probably happen again because that is Lebanon,” said Tarek Serhan, one of the protesters. “What was the purpose of using such force against us? It was to make us afraid, to make us not do this again, but we are not afraid and we will not stop protesting.”