(Beirut) - The Lebanese government should immediately drop criminal charges against three men for posting comments critical of President Michel Suleiman on Facebook, Human Rights Watch said today.
The charges cannot be justified given that a major element of freedom of speech is the right to criticize a public official, Human Rights Watch said. The group also called on Lebanon to repeal penal code provisions allowing for prison sentences in libel and defamation cases.
"These charges undermine Lebanon's reputation as the country with the greatest tolerance for free expression in the Arab world," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "Using criminal laws to censor Lebanese citizens is an embarrassing step in the wrong direction for the government."
Security forces detained Na`im Hanna, Antoine Ramia, and Shibel Kassab between June 22 and 28, 2010, for posting comments critical of Suleiman on Facebook, the prominent social networking site, two of the detainees told Human Rights Watch. Gilbert Salemeh, one of the lawyers for the young men, said that the First Investigative Judge, Ghassan Oweidat, interrogated Hanna, Ramia, and Kassab on June 29 and charged them with libel (zamm), defamation (qadeh), and insulting (tahqir) the president under articles 384, 386, and 388 of Lebanon's penal code. They face up to two years in jail if convicted. The men were released on bail on July 2 pending further investigation.
The Lebanese penal code criminalizes libel and defamation against the president, other public officials, and private individuals. Laws that allow imprisonment in response to criticism of individuals or state officials are incompatible with Lebanon's international obligations to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Such laws create an environment that stifles free expression, and the penalties they impose are neither necessary nor proportionate to the violations they are meant to deter. Additionally, "libel," "defamation," and "insult" are not well-defined in Lebanese law, and such vague and broadly worded provisions can be used - as these charges demonstrate - to quell criticism of the actions or policies of government officials.
While these criminal provisions have not often been used in recent years in Lebanon, this is not an isolated incident. In March 2010, Military Intelligence officials interrogated Khodor Salemeh, an active Lebanese blogger, for posting a series of articles in which he criticized the Lebanese army, the confessional system of government, and the three heads of state. The interrogations focused on his criticism of the president. While no charges were filed, this form of intimidation has a stifling effect on freedom of expression. After the interrogation, and on the advice of his lawyer, Salemeh took two of the articles about the Lebanese army off his blog.
"Lebanon should not go back to the days where people get detained or harassed for things they say or write," Houry said. "The only way to do that is to drop the charges against these youths and remove these provisions from its criminal code."
Na`im Hanna created a Facebook group entitled, "We don't want a hypocrite at the helm of the presidency" (La noureed khabeeth fee souddat al ri'assa) in early May to criticize the alleged interference of Suleiman in municipal elections held in the Jbeil region. Hanna told Human Rights Watch that he closed the group on May 26 because he felt that "he was losing control of the group" and that some of the members of the group had started issuing insults.
A few weeks later, on June 21, members of the "technology group" at the Internal Security Forces (she`bet al-ma`lumetiyyeh) came to his house and asked him to report the next day for interrogation. They detained him when he reported for questioning on June 22. Hanna said they showed him printouts of his Facebook profile and of the group's page (dated May 15, before the group was closed).
On June 26, security forces detained Antoine Ramia, and two days later, Shebel Kassab, for posting comments to the same Facebook group. The prosecutor's office also issued a "notice of search and investigation" against a fourth member of the Facebook group, Ahmad Shouman, but to date, the government has not detained him.
All three were released on July 2 after they were charged. It is not yet clear whether they will be tried, and if so, when. Hanna and Ramia, who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch, said they suffered no ill-treatment during their detention.