A threat to democracy and freedom of speech.
The Lebanese Constitution confers in Article 13 the right to freedom of speech and states in its preamble that Lebanon is a democratic republic. However, can Lebanon be called a free and democratic country that preaches freedom of speech when means of suppression are being used to silence the voice of the people? The aim of this article is to highlight the most important transgressions on civilians’ rights witnessed during the October 17 Revolution, and to establish a legal frame that demonstrates the alarming reality of it. In fact, during the constant clashes that mainly occurred in Downtown Beirut and in Tripoli, activists have been subjected to an excessive and unlawful use of violence by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and have been detained without due process rights, which is a clear violation of both international and internal laws.
Excessive Force Against Protestors
In coordination with the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, Legal Agenda, a Human rights group based in Lebanon, recorded 732 injuries among protesters.1 Rubbers bullets at close range, tear gas, water cannons, and even live bullets were used by riot police against protestors in downtown Beirut to disperse the large crowds that formed. Water cannons and tear gas were also used against unthreatening families that included women, children, and toddlers. According to an Amnesty International report, the use of excessive force against protestors, especially on the two hectic nights of the 18th and 19th of January 2020, was a violation of Human rights and the “International standards and guidelines on the use of force”, in which it is clearly stated “that rubber bullets may only be used against individuals engaged in violence against individuals, and may only be aimed to the lower body to avoid serious and lethal injuries”.2 Yet testimonies of injured civilians and their medical reports showed that riot police were randomly targeting individuals’ faces, eyes, and upper bodies, which caused permanent damage.
The International standards also state that such violent acts of force shall be limited and proportioned to “the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved”,3 but riot police, violating these standards, resorted to chasing and severely beating peaceful standbys with their bare hands or with batons. In addition, these violators were hard to track down to be put under investigation, since according to ALEF’s annual report, police officers did not wear name tags, making the chances of identifying and holding them accountable ultimately low.4
Immediately after demonstrators hit the streets protesting the Beirut Port explosion that occurred on the 4th of August 2020, a report conducted by Human Rights Watch between August 8 and August 18 showed that security forces and two other unknown shooters used live ammunition towards protestors around the parliament and Human Rights Watch considered this to be a serious violation of International Human Rights standards and said that the use of violence by some protesters did not justify the use of force by the authorities.5 Despite eye witnesses’ testimonies and the several circulated footages of the incident, both the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces denied the use of live ammunition.
On the 26th of October 2019, attacks and counter attacks occurred in the Beddawi area in Tripoli when the Lebanese army attempted to open a blocked road, and live bullets were fired causing at least two individuals to suffer gunshot wounds. “I saw him aiming at me while I threw stones and said don’t shoot! I’ll stop throwing the stones… but he shot me four times in the stomach” said Mohammed al-Abdallah.6 On the evening of 12 November 2019, Alaa Abou Fakhr was the first victim of the Lebanese army. His death was caused by a gunshot wound to the head when security forces fired shots to clear a path for an army convoy. Last January, clashes in Tripoli reemerged after protestors refused Covid-19 lockdown measures that cut out their livelihoods. Omar Taybah, aged 30, was the latest victim of unjustified violence, and was killed by a live bullet after Security forces fired live rounds to put an end to riots.
Given all the aforementioned reasons, this use of lethal violence could well fall under the crimes of torture defined by the “United Nations Convention against Torture”.7
Lebanese Law: Violated
The Lebanese law states that when exercising coercive power, the ISF and the LAF have to avoid the use of force and violence in fulfilling their duties and maintaining public order.
The ISF code of conduct states that only exceptional circumstances such as self-defense may justify the use of weapons against civilians but they have to be necessary and proportioned to the seriousness of the attacks.8 One could argue that the use of rocks and fireworks by protestors does not justify the counter-attacks by the ISF as they are not proportioned. As such, a law enforcement member has to prove that they were in immediate danger when he resorted to weapon use. They also have to prove that alternative methods to violence were used beforehand and that said methods failed at enforcing the peace, protecting property, or preventing crime.
The Lebanese Penal Code, Article 401, prohibits torture and defines a crime of torture as any type of violence used by a government official “at any point from preliminary inquiry, investigation, and interrogation through judicial inquiry, court trial, and sentence enforcement”. Numerous protestors including women and children reported that they were beaten, tortured, and threatened with sexual violence at detention centers or in transport vehicles. They were also subjected to duress and coerced into giving statements during interrogations that lasted for hours. Arrests were informal with no means of obtaining information about the detained individuals.
With the absence of any real form of accountability and court trials of the alleged ISF or LAF members who perpetrated said crimes, even if it were to be in the politically coaxed military court, no news has been reported to date regarding the aftermath of the incidents, nor whether the victims attempted to vainly sue the suspects, especially in light of wanton due process violations.
Due Process Violations
Free Speech: Prosecuted
The Lebanese Constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law” and Lebanon has ratified in 1972 the “International Convention on Civil and Political Rights” wherein Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression”.
That being the case, these articles are an open window for authorities to silence journalists and social media activists who are criticizing powerful political figures. They are used as legal references that allow those in power to file complaints against whoever personally attacks their public persona or accuses them of corruption. Some of these laws are outdated and have been unaltered since the Ottoman mandate, with the Human Rights Watch urging the Lebanese Parliament to revoke such laws, as they constitute a clear infringement on Human rights and freedom of speech.
At least 29 people were called for interrogation concerning insult and defamation charges between October 2019 and March 2020, and 20 people, including minors, were detained and interrogated for tearing down posters of politicians and the president. After concluding several interviews with individuals who have been detained by the ISF’s Cybercrimes Bureau, Human rights watch documented psychological interrogation tactics as well as verbal and physical abuse used to intimidate the detainees. It also documented public prosecutors and interrogating agents pressuring some individuals into signing illegal pledges that promised to remove social media posts and to stop writing defamatory content.
Fourteen Lebanese and international organizations formed a “Coalition to defend freedom of expression in Lebanon”. The coalition believes that violations of freedom of speech increased in the 2019 protests, and it urges Parliament to draft a reform law removing penalties related to defamation of public figures and the President. However, it would be indeed ironic to ask a Parliament, which itself consists of members who were targets of public criticism throughout the October 17 uprising, to reform a law that provides them with protection.
Code of Criminal Procedure: Article 47
As the need for protestors’ rights grew, a draft law prepared by the Beirut Bar Association was presented to Parliament to amend Article 47 of the code of criminal procedure which grants certain rights to an individual when taken into custody:
- To seek medical care if needed
- To contact a lawyer or a family member
- To meet with a lawyer
- To remain silent and not be coerced into incriminating oneself
- To not be detained for more than 48 hours without a decision from the Public Prosecution
Parliament adopted the amendment law on 30 September 2020, giving article 47 its importance in safeguarding civil rights such as defense rights and protection from unlawful violence. Authorities had in fact been violating this important article throughout the October 17 uprising by forbidding lawyers from accessing police stations and by postponing its application until primary interrogations were over, despite the fact that article 47 is clearly applied “immediately upon being taken into custody”. The Public Prosecution offices also did a case-by-case discretion to assess whether an individual should be given his rights to defense or not. The amendment was a first step in ensuring protesters’ legal rights when taken into custody, li having an attorney present during primarily interrogations, having an attorney appointed to them if they are financially incapable of hiring one, having the right to know what they are suspected or accused of, and most importantly, having the investigation audio-visually recorded. However, can the Public Prosecution offices and judicial police truly be trusted to rightfully apply article 47, guaranteeing people’s protection against arbitrary conduct during interrogations? It appears that without any close and tangible surveillance by judicial authorities to ensure its application, it would not be surprising if the reform law was more than often violated. In fact, criminal courts rarely agree to impose legal consequences or to annul preliminary investigations in which the police ignored article 47, particularly because it is difficult to prove such transgressions.
Marta Hurtado, an “Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights” spokesperson said “people have the right to participate in public affairs and shape all decisions that affect their lives”.9 Indeed, it is crucial that the right to protest and the right to freedom of assembly be respected, which is why Lebanese authorities must take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of peaceful protesters, whether it be through reinforcing laws that guaranty these rights, or through holding responsible police members who transgress their duties and resort to unnecessary means of power against civilians.
Needless to say, with the wanton disrespect of the law and the due process violations, as well as an increasing campaign to defame, denounce and destroy the October 17 Revolution, can these violations ever be prosecuted and the victims be rightfully availed? As government forces continue to be protected by the political establishment, which itself consists of more than the majority of Parliament, is there room for eventual reform in the matters of freedom of speech and its protection?
Only a state that respects the people’s demands could prosper, and when demands are not met, it is only natural that the people revolt. Without a clear end in sight to the Lebanese crisis and with the constant bickering of the political and banking establishment, the future of the middle-eastern country looks grim to say the least.
- “A popular Uprising Met With Violence and Torture: Crimes against protesters during Lebanon’s uprising” (Haidar)
- Lebanon: New government must immediately rein in security forces after weekend of violence.
- Basic Principles On the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials., adopted by the 8th United Nations congress on the prevention of crime and the treatment of offenders.
- The Situation of Human Rights in Lebanon: Annual Report.
- Lebanon: Lethal Force Used Against Protestors
- Lebanon Protests Explained
- Article 1 defines the term torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” (Convention Against Torture)
- In the exercise of their coercive powers, police members shall avoid all violence that is not deemed necessary (ISF Code of Conduct).
“use of force must be proportionate and commensurate with the circumstances and used only if other means fail to accomplish the mission”.
- Lebanon: UN rights office calls for escalation of protest violence.