(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities’ arrest and detention of a journalism student for a critical Facebook post is incompatible with Lebanon’s human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today.

Bassel al-Amin’s mother at a protest against his continued detention.

The authorities arrested Bassel al-Amin, 21, on December 6, 2016. An investigative judge released him on bail on December 12, and referred his file to the general prosecutor, who will recommend whether to drop the case or bring charges, said Al Amin’s lawyer. Lebanon should drop the case and repeal vague and overbroad criminal laws that can lead to prison terms for insulting the president or state symbols, stifling freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arresting Bassel Al Amin for no more than criticizing Lebanon’s presidents and symbol is a clear case of suppression of critical speech that will further chill freedom of expression in Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This is only the latest incident in a troubling pattern of using vague and overbroad criminal laws to detain people who criticize the government.”

The Lebanese Internal Security Force’s Anti-Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau summoned Al Amin for questioning on December 5 about the post, which criticized Lebanon, its presidents, and its national emblem, the cedar. The post has since been deleted. The lawyer said that Al Amin was interrogated without a lawyer and is being investigated for insulting the Lebanese national emblem and causing sectarian or racist strife under articles 317 and 384 of the penal code. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.

Protesters demonstrated against Al Amin’s arrest and detention outside the Justice Ministry on December 8, and at Al Amin’s university on December 12.

Arresting Bassel Al Amin for no more than criticizing Lebanon’s presidents and symbol is a clear case of suppression of critical speech that will further chill freedom of expression in Lebanon. This is only the latest incident in a troubling pattern of using vague and overbroad criminal laws to detain people who criticize the government.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch

“I saw him the first day and the following morning and I collapsed, I started crying,” Al Amin’s mother told Human Rights Watch. “He does not belong in that cell. You should have seen the people he’s with. What did he do to deserve this? He’s a student. He studies journalism. He shouldn’t be there.”

Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.” But article 384 of the penal code authorizes imprisonment of six months to two years for insulting the president, the flag, or the national emblem. Article 317 criminalizes acts, writing, or speech that is meant to cause or results in “sectarian or racist strife,” with prison terms of one to three years.

Such laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations and the state, and they chill freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has held that “harassment, intimidation or stigmatization of a person, including arrest, detention, trial or imprisonment for reasons of the opinions they may hold, constitutes a violation” of the covenant, which Lebanon ratified in 1972. The committee has stated its disapproval of laws that criminalize insulting the head of state or national symbols.

In addition, “libel,” “defamation,” and “insult” are not well-defined in Lebanese law. Such vague and broadly worded provisions can be used to quell criticism of the government, or actions or policies of government officials.

Human Rights Watch has long documented Lebanon’s use of libel and defamation laws to penalize journalists and activists for opinions and statements that are protected under international human rights law.

On May 30, Lebanese authorities arrested a lawyer and human rights activist, Nabil al-Halabi, over his Facebook posts criticizing government officials. He was detained for three days and released after signing a “document of submission.”

In October 2015, 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 US$200. Also in October 2015, a court sentenced Mohammed Nazzal, a journalist, to six months in absentia and fined him US$666 for a Facebook post criticizing the Lebanese judiciary. 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.

Between June 22 and 28, 2010, security forces detained Na`im Hanna, Antoine Ramia, and Shibel Kassab for posting comments critical of then-President Michel Suleiman on Facebook. They were charged with libel, defamation, and insulting the president under articles 384, 386, and 388 of Lebanon’s penal code.

The Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom found in a 2016 report that Lebanese defamation laws were used for “targeting activists and dissidents and… intimidating online journalists, bloggers and Internet users from speaking about certain subjects, thus paving the way for self-censorship and the chilling of speech.”

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, defamation, and insulting the president and national symbols, Human Rights Watch said.

“The criminalization of free expression has no place in a rights-respecting country,” Fakih said. “Whether or not it agrees with the views being expressed, the Lebanese government should guarantee the right to speak out freely as a necessary check on the abuse of power.”