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(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities arrested a lawyer and human rights activist, Nabil al-Halabi, on May 30, 2016 over his Facebook posts criticizing government officials. The authorities should immediately release him.

Nabil al-Halabi, Lebanese lawyer and director of The Lebanese Institute For Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE) at his office in Beirut, Lebanon. © 2015 Nabil al-Halabi

In his Facebook posts, al-Halabi accused Interior Ministry officials of corruption and possible complicity with people arrested by Internal Security forces on March 27 in connection with sex trafficking of Syrian women. On April 12, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk filed a libel and defamation complaint against al-Halabi with the Public Prosecution in Beirut, citing the Facebook posts. A senior advisor to Machnouk also filed a separate libel and defamation complaint over the Facebook posts. Imprisonment for defamation normally violates freedom of expression as guaranteed under international law, and al-Halabi’s detention may also violate Lebanese law.

“Al-Halabi’s arrest for criticizing Lebanese officials and the intimidating way it was carried out sets a dangerous precedent,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “The Interior Ministry may not like what al-Halabi wrote, but that didn’t give them the right to storm into his house and lock him up.”

Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) stormed al-Halabi’s home in the early morning hours of May 30, breaking down his front door and arresting him. Khaled Kreydiyeh, one of al-Halabi’s lawyers, said the authorities told him that they arrested al-Halabi because he failed to appear for legal proceedings in a libel and defamation case filed against him by Maher Abou al-Khoudoud, a senior advisor to the interior minister.

Kreydiyeh said that al-Khoudoud, had filed a separate libel and defamation claim against al-Halabi for his Facebook posts and that he was never properly notified of the hearing so he did not violate any judicial request to appear.

Al-Halabi remained in detention overnight.

The Lebanese penal code criminalizes libel and defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases. The Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure allows an investigating judge to issue an enforceable summons to ensure the presence of a defendant who fails to appear to a hearing without a legitimate excuse but then the law requires the defendant to be questioned within 24 hours of the execution of the summons.

Following this initial 24 hour questioning period, Lebanese law does not permit pre-trial arrests for crimes punishable by imprisonment for one year or less, which is what defamation of regular government officials entails.

Kreydiyeh said that both Machnouk’s and Abou al-Khoudoud’s complaints cite al-Halabi’s Facebook posts as evidence, including his April 4 Facebook post denouncing corruption within the office of the Interior Ministry and alluding to some employees’ complicity in the alleged sex trafficking ring. On March 27, ISF had discovered 75 women in two buildings, most of them Syrian, who had been held against their will and forced into sexual slavery.

In subsequent Facebook posts, Nabil urged the Interior Ministry to “clean” itself of corrupt personnel.

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 are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, and they chill freedom of expression. Additionally, "libel," "defamation," and "insult" are not well-defined in Lebanese law, and such vague and broadly worded provisions can be used to quell criticism of the actions or policies of government officials.

Human Rights Watch has documented several recent cases of arrests and prosecution for Facebook posts critical of Lebanese officials or governmental bodies. In January 2015, Lebanese authorities summoned an Al Jazeera journalist, Faisal Qassem, over charges of insulting the army in Facebook posts and, given his failure to show up to two hearings, issued a warrant against him.

In October, security forces detained a political activist, Michel Douaihy, after General Security filed a complaint against him for Facebook posts that officials deemed libelous. He was released after nine days, and a court fined him $200. Also in October, a Lebanese court sentenced Mohammed Nazzal, a journalist, to six months in absentia and fined him $666 for a Facebook post criticizing the Lebanese judiciary.

While few bloggers, activists and journalists end up in jail, the proliferation of such prosecutions and the threat of arrest reflect an urgent need for Lebanon to amend its laws to remove criminal sanctions for libel and defamation.

“You don’t protect a reputation by intimidating those criticizing you,” Houry said. “Lebanon’s judiciary should protect freedom of expression from officials who may be tempted to flex their muscles against their critics.”

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