(Beirut) – The Lebanese government should release the activist Ahmad Amhaz and drop charges against him, six media organizations and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, said today. The groups issued the following statement:
We, the undersigned human rights and media organizations, condemn the arrest, detention, and prosecution of the activist Ahmad Amhaz. His arrest and continued detention is a violation of Lebanese law and Lebanon’s human rights obligations.
Amhaz was arrested on March 21 and has now spent eight days in jail. He is being charged with insulting the president of the republic and could face up to two years in jail; he is also being charged with slander and contempt of public officials. In a hearing on Monday, March 27, Mount Lebanon investigative judge Pierre Francis issued a warrant for his arrest. Amhaz’s lawyer filed an appeal for his release, but his request was denied.
We are calling for the immediate release of Ahmad Amhaz and requesting that all charged against him be dropped. We further call on Lebanon’s general prosecutor to stop bringing charges against those who criticize politicians and public officials, and will be sending him a formal letter to that effect. And we call on parliament to repeal the laws criminalizing defamation and criticism of public officials, which have no legitimate basis and are incompatible with Lebanon’s human rights obligations under international law.
We are deeply concerned about the troubling pattern of Lebanese authorities’ prosecution of those who speak critically of public officials, and the use of vague and overbroad criminal laws to target outspoken activists, human rights lawyers, and journalists for statements that are protected under international human rights law. This is only the latest case in this pattern. Increasingly, authorities are bringing charges based on online statements made on individuals’ personal Facebook or Twitter accounts.
We are further concerned at the repeated use of pre-trial detention to hold people in jail in these cases for no legitimate reason, meaning that individuals spend time in jail even if they are never convicted or sentenced. This pattern of prosecution and detention sends a clear message that those who speak out will be arrested and criminally charged, stifling freedom of expression in Lebanon.
The criminalization of free expression has no place in a rights-respecting country. 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, rather than attempting to quash criticism.
Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.” But the Lebanese penal code criminalizes libel and defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases. Article 384 of the penal code authorizes imprisonment of six months to two years for insulting the president, the flag, or the national emblem. These laws serve no legitimate purpose and are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations and the state.
The proliferation of such prosecutions and the threat of arrest reflect an urgent need for Lebanon’s parliament to remove criminal sanctions for libel, defamation, and criticism of public officials and symbols. In the interim, authorities should release Ahmad Amhaz and stop bringing prosecutions in these cases.
- Social Media Exchange (SMEX)
- Human Rights Watch
- The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH)
- SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom
- MAP – Media Association for Peace