Human Rights Watch criticized the Lebanese government for suppressing peaceful anti-Syria protests in recent days.
The largely student-led protests have called for the withdrawal of Syrian military and security forces from Lebanon. Yesterday, Lebanon's military court sentenced one student to one month in prison and another to ten days, while a third was fined and released. All were found guilty of distributing leaflets calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and full independence from Damascus. Last week the military court tried eight others who were arrested as army and security forces forcibly broke up demonstrations in Beirut on April 17 and April 18. In those incidents, some thirteen people were injured, two of them seriously. The eight demonstrators received sentences ranging from ten days to six weeks in prison. Military court trials and prison should not be the response when Lebanese peacefully criticize Syria's role in their country," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "And senior government officials should not be suggesting that the exercise of freedom of expression at this historic juncture is unpatriotic. This is intimidation, and it is unacceptable."
In the time since Israel pledged to withdraw from occupied south Lebanon by early July, opponents of Syria's political domination of Lebanon have called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. On April 17, dozens of demonstrators, mostly students, assembled at the justice ministry in Beirut to protest the arrest of two students on April 13 for allegedly distributing anti-Syria leaflets. The protestors chanted anti-Syria slogans, including "Syria, get out of here." On April 18, protestors gathered again, this time near the National Museum. According to press reports, some put tape over their mouths to underscore the government's attempts to silence them. When this crowd refused to disperse on the order of a Lebanese army officer, security forces forcibly dispersed the demonstrators, and in an ensuing clash, several were reportedly injured. In the wake of these two incidents, some 1,000 students peacefully rallied on three university campuses on April 19 to cries of "The Israeli army out, the Syrian army out," and "Lebanon first." Although the campuses were reportedly surrounded by security forces and army troops, there were no arrests and the rallies did not spill out onto the streets.
In reaction to the unrest, a statement by Lebanese president Emile Lahoud on April 21 said that he was "extremely annoyed by attempts to incite confusion," and added that the protesting students were being used as dupes. "Young people must realize that those who are raising their voices today are being manipulated by embassies or capitals which are playing Israel's game." Human Rights Watch said that such remarks had a chilling effect, and compromised the right of Lebanese to freely express their ideas and opinions.
Human Rights Watch also criticized the prosecution of civilians in Lebanon's military court. "Civilians must be tried in courts that are independent and impartial," said Megally. "The military court does not meet this international standard. With the army deployed to suppress peaceful dissent in the streets of Beirut, protestors should not be brought before military prosecutors and judges."