Fears over civil liberties in Lebanon after allegations of military abuse

Sunday 16/07/2017
A thin red line. Lebanese demonstrators scuffle with riot police during a protest in downtown Beirut, last March. (AFP)

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.”