Lebanon Protests

Lebanon has seen mass anti-government demonstrations since October 17, 2019, when the government announced a slew of new taxes. The countrywide protests devolved into expressions of anger against the entire political establishment, whom protesters blame for the country’s dire economic crisis. State security forces at times used excessive force against demonstrators and failed to protect them from violent counter-protesters. The economic crisis and an irresponsible fiscal policy threatens people’s  access to health care and food, and has driven many families into poverty. Vulnerable groups, including refugees and migrant workers, have been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis.

Violence Ahead of Government Confidence Vote

Lebanese security forces, including riot police, parliament police, army paratroopers, and army commando regiments, encircled the parliament building in downtown Beirut and clashed with protesters ahead of a vote of confidence for the new cabinet.

Thousands of protesters gathered around the entrances to parliament early on February 11 and tried to obstruct MPs from attending the session. Protesters reject the new cabinet, saying its members have clear connections to established political parties and are unable to address the economic crisis.

Human Rights Watch observed security forces launching tear gas to disperse protesters at the entrances to parliament, and fired some canisters directly at protesters in violation of international standards. A teargas canister went through a woman’s cardboard sign and burnt the flag around her neck. A journalist reported being hit in the leg with a teargas canister.

Security forces also used water cannons to disperse protesters around the Annahar building. Two protesters from Tripoli told Human Rights Watch that security forces launched teargas and aimed water cannons at them around the Annahar building at 8 a.m. without any provocation. A local media watchdog reported that security forces fired a rubber bullet that hit a photographer’s in the mouth near the Annahar building.

Human Rights Watch observed soldiers beating protesters around the ESCWA building, and saw riot police beating protesters around the Zkak el-Blat entrance. One injured protester told Human Rights Watch that a riot police officer threw a rock that hit his head near the Riad al-Solh entrance. Some supporters of Amal and Hezbollah also threw rocks at protesters around the Ring road and Zkak el-Blat.

While Prime Minister Hassan Diab was talking to a half empty parliament hall about the importance of the right to protest, security forces were throwing tear gas and beating people up outside. For the right to have any real meaning, Lebanon’s authorities should ensure that protesters are able to freely express their opinions, including those deemed critical of the government.

Aya Majzoub

Lebanon and Bahrain Researcher, Human Rights Watch

The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful in the morning, but Human Rights Watch observed a few protesters throwing rocks at security forces and hurling teargas canisters back at them. Other protesters threw water bottles, rocks, and eggs at the parliamentarians’ convoys. One parliamentarian was transported to the hospital after protesters attacked his convoy.

Around noon, after the parliamentary session started, some protesters attempted to break into Nejmeh Square, where parliament is located. They threw rocks and fireworks at security forces and removed at least two of the concrete and metal barriers that security forces had set up around the compound’s perimeter. Security forces escalated their response, launching large amounts of teargas, firing rubber bullets, and beating protesters.

As of 4:30 p.m., the Lebanese Red Cross reported treating 328 injuries at the scene and transporting 45 to nearby hospitals.

Lebanon’s Military Courts Have No Business Trying Civilians

At least two civilians have appeared before military courts in Lebanon in recent days, prompting fresh concerns over authorities’ attempts to stamp out dissent in the country. Hassan Yassine and Nour Chahine both face charges related to their involvement in the protest movement currently sweeping Lebanon.

Activist Hassan Yassine, who the Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested during a protest in Beirut on January 22, 2020, has been charged by the military prosecutor with “forcefully resisting security forces.” He appeared before the Military Tribunal on February 3. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters said that a forensic doctor who examined Yassine while in detention found his body bore marks of abuse, which the committee say resulted from the ISF beating him during his arrest and before his interrogation at the El Helou police station.

Another man from Tripoli, Nour Chahine, has been charged with attempting to kill a member of the army and with “resisting the security forces” in front of Beirut’s parliament. Chahine turned himself in to the military intelligence branch in Tripoli on December 25, 2019 and has been detained at the Defense Ministry and Military Police branch in Rayhaniyya ever since. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, Chahine was not allowed to contact his family or meet with a lawyer before his interrogation. He first appeared before the Military Tribunal on January 31, and before a military investigative judge on February 4. During his first hearing, Chahine alleged that he was tortured while being interrogated at the Defense Ministry.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation revealed the many due process and international law violations inherent in trying civilians before military courts in Lebanon. 

Military courts have no business trying civilians. Lebanon’s parliament should end this troubling practice by passing a law to remove civilians from the military court’s jurisdiction entirely.

Podcast: Security Forces’ Unlawful Use of Force

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, spoke with the hosts of The Lebanese Politics Podcast, Nizar Hassan and Benjamin Redd, about the security forces’ unlawful use of force against demonstrators since the protests began on October 17, 2019. Listen to the episode here.

National Human Rights Institute Launches Roadmap

Lebanon’s National Human Rights Institute (NHRI) held a session today with civil society, including Human Rights Watch, to discuss its roadmap for the next year and its engagement in reporting and advocacy ahead of Lebanon’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in November 2020.

The 10-member National Human Rights Institute is an official body established on October 19, 2016 to monitor the human rights situation in the country by reviewing laws, decrees, and administrative decisions and by investigating complaints of human rights violations and issuing periodic reports of its findings.

The NHRI includes the 5-member National Preventative Mechanism against Torture (NPM), mandated to oversee the implementation of the anti-torture law in September 2017. It will have the authority to conduct regular unannounced visits to all places of detention, investigate the use of torture, and issue recommendations to improve the treatment of detainees. The members will be able to interview detainees privately and outside the presence of guards. Lebanese authorities are legally obligated to cooperate with the unit and facilitate its work. The NPM is a body Lebanon is required to have set up under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which it ratified on December 22, 2008.

The roles of the NHRI and the NPM are especially critical during this period of mass protests in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch has documented the security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters, and tens have alleged torture by security forces, including severe beatings and threats of sexual violence.

However, the 2020 state budget that parliament passed on January 27 does not include any funds allocated to the NHRI and the NPM, which would allow these bodies to fulfill their mandates. The NHRI’s members stated that they are currently working in a volunteer capacity and do not have a headquarters from which to operate and receive citizens’ complaints. If Lebanon is serious about combatting torture, it should quickly ensure that the institutions it set up to end torture have the resources they need to effect real change.

Security Forces Clash with Protesters Ahead of Parliament Session

Security forces, including riot police, parliament police and army special forces, clashed with protesters who were attempting to block entrances to parliament in downtown Beirut ahead of a parliamentary session to discuss the 2020 budget. Videos circulating on social media showed security forces launching tear gas, firing rubber bullets, and beating protesters at several entrances, including near Riad al-Solh, near the Le Grey hotel, and near Fransabank on Bab Idriss street.

Sunniva Rose, a journalist covering the events, told Human Rights Watch that she observed some protesters throwing rocks and water bottles at security forces near the Le Grey hotel. She said riot police advanced towards protesters, beating some and firing tear gas to disperse them. Rose said that she saw a young man with blood all over his face, apparently after security forces beat him.

A witness near the parliament entrance at Riad al-Solh told Human Rights Watch that he saw security forces firing rubber bullets without warning from behind the barricades that they had set up after a few protesters tried to kick down a metal barrier. He saw one bullet hit a woman standing nearby in the leg, causing her to fall to the ground screaming in pain.

The Lebanese Red Cross stated that as of 1 p.m., it had transported 8 people to nearby hospitals and treated 19 injured at the scene. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters said that 11 protesters were arrested during today’s scuffles outside parliament, and that some protesters alleged that riot police beat them during the arrest. The committee stated that four detainees were released shortly after their arrest and went to hospitals for treatment.

Kareem Chehayeb, a local journalist and researcher, told Human Rights Watch that protesters tried to obstruct the session because they believe that the 2020 budget, which had been drafted and agreed upon by the government of the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in October, needs to be revised, given the drastic changes in the economic situation. Several political parties, arguing that the session was unconstitutional, boycotted the session, saying the new government should have first won a vote of confidence in parliament.

Parliamentarians passed the 2020 budget after a secret vote, three months into mass protests demanding accountability and greater transparency in decision-making.

Ziad Itani Files for Compensation for Torture

Ziad Itani, a well-known actor who described to Human Rights Watch his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017, filed a request for compensation to the Council of Ministers on January 8, 2019. Itani requested compensation for the serious harm he sustained at the hands of the public administrations, security agencies, and the judiciary.

Ziad Itani

© Private

Itani was falsely accused of spying for Israel. He said that he was held for six days in what appeared to be an unofficial detention site where men in civilian clothing, who he believes were State Security officers, tortured him and subjected him to other forms of ill-treatment until he signed a confession. He was held in pretrial detention for more than three months, until the military investigative judge closed the case against him on May 29, 2018and charged two people with falsely accusing him.

Details of Itani’s interrogation and the accusations against him leaked to the media within a day of his arrest, and Itani described the leak as “the biggest form of torture I’ve seen in my life. They took my phone as I sat in my cell and read the news and my friends’ Facebook posts about me. I lost hope.… The psychological torture and words they used were more horrible than the physical torture.”

On November 20, 2018, Itani filed a civil lawsuit with the State Prosecutor’s Office against the people accused of framing him and the State Security officials who conducted the preliminary investigation, who he claims tortured him. On November 28, 2018, State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud referred his complaint to the military prosecutor on the grounds that the complaint is directed against security officers. After his first hearing on April 12, 2019, the military prosecution decided to return the case to the civilian judiciary. Since then, Itani said, there has been no progress on his case.

Lebanon’s 2017 anti-torture law criminalizes torture and includes special procedures for investigating allegations of torture. It also provides for rehabilitation and compensation for victims, though it does not include details or guidance for carrying out those provisions.

Under international law, victims of torture have the right to redress, including an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation and full rehabilitation.

Human Rights Watch has for years documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and accountability for torture in detention remains elusive.

Prime Minister Forms A New Cabinet

Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the formation of a new cabinet on January 21, almost one month after he was appointed to the post. The 20-member cabinet, which includes six female ministers, was backed by political parties allied with Hezbollah.

Speaking shortly after the presidential palace announced the cabinet, Diab said that "this is a government that represents the aspirations of the demonstrators who have been mobilized nationwide for more than three months." He promised that the new government will tackle some core protester demands, including the independence of the judiciary and the return of funds stolen from Lebanese state coffers, and it will fight illicit enrichment, protect low-income families, fight unemployment, and work to endorse a new electoral law.

Thousands of protesters quickly took to the streets and blocked major highways across the country to reject the new cabinet, saying the members have clear connections to established political parties. Hundreds gathered in front of the entrance to Parliament in downtown Beirut. Some threw rocks and projectiles at the riot police blocking the entrance, and a few tried to storm the barricades.

Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters and, for the first time since the protests began in October, used a chemical spray against protesters trying to remove the barriers blocking the entrance to parliament. The riot police also sprayed an Associated Press photographer who was covering the protests. Protesters who came in contact with the spray described a burning sensation. The Internal Security Forces tweeted that the spray was a common riot dispersal method used in other countries and claimed its effects were temporary.

Protesters gathered in downtown Beirut again today, and clashes between rock-throwing protesters and security forces began around 5 p.m.