(Beirut) – Lebanese security forces have failed to stop attacks on peaceful demonstrators by men armed with sticks, metal rods, and sharp objects, Human Rights Watch said today. The security forces have also used excessive force to disperse protests and clear roadblocks. Lebanese authorities should take all feasible measures to protect peaceful protesters and refrain from forcibly breaking up peaceful assemblies.
Human Rights Watch documented at least six instances in which the security forces failed to protect peaceful protestors from violent attacks by men armed with sticks, rocks, and metal rods. Although security forces have largely refrained from using excessive force against protesters since October 18, 2019, Human Rights Watch documented them using excessive force to disperse protesters on at least 12 occasions. Security forces have also arbitrarily arrested dozens of peaceful protesters and interfered with people filming the protest incidents.
“Lebanese security forces appear to have by and large respected citizens’ right to protest, but the authorities should make clear that they will not tolerate violent attacks and will stop forcibly dispersing protests without cause,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces should protect peaceful demonstrators, including by ensuring that they themselves are properly equipped and deployed on demonstration sites.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 protesters who said they witnessed or were the victims of violent attacks by counter-demonstrators or excessive force by security forces in Beirut, Sour, Nabatieh, Bint Jbeil, Saida, Jal el Dib, and Abdeh. Five people said that the security forces prevented or tried to prevent them from filming the abuse, in some cases using excessive force. Most of the people interviewed asked Human Rights Watch not to use their names or their full names for their protection.
Protesters said that security forces failed to intervene to protect peaceful protesters from violent attackers on at least six occasions in Beirut, Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh, and Sour.
Human Rights Watch observed one such attack in downtown Beirut on October 29, when hundreds of supporters of Amal and Hezbollah used rocks and metal rods to attack peaceful demonstrators who were blocking the Ring highway in central Beirut and burned, vandalized, and looted protesters’ tents. Human Rights Watch and witnesses observed that riot police and the army who were present did not intervene decisively to stop the attack or arrest any attackers. They used tear gas to disperse the attackers only two hours later.
The Lebanese state authorities have a responsibility both to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to protect protesters from violent attack, Human Rights Watch said. This includes ensuring that properly trained security forces are deployed in sufficient numbers at demonstration sites and that they intervene in a timely manner to prevent injuries. They should ensure the prosecution of those responsible for violent attacks.
The Lebanese security forces have in some instances used excessive force to clear roadblocks set up by protesters around the country. Human Rights Watch observed, and witnesses said, that during these incidents, security forces used batons and the butts of their rifles to beat protesters who were blocking roads, and in some cases detained protesters. In one case, the army used tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesters blocking the road in the north Lebanon town of Abdeh.
The Lebanese army has acknowledged the protesters’ right to peaceful protest and assembly but maintained that protesters should reopen roads and only assemble in public squares. Authorities have not explained why they considered it necessary to forcibly remove roadblocks or disperse protesters in any of the incidents Human Rights Watch documented.
Human Rights Watch on numerous occasions observed protesters promptly removing the roadblocks for ambulances, medical staff, and military personnel. The secretary general of the Lebanese Red Cross confirmed that protesters have cleared the roads for ambulances.
According to the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, between October 17 and November 4, Lebanese authorities detained at least 200 protesters, including in Beirut and Sour. As of November 4, 19 of them were still in detention. Five of those detained described to Human Rights Watch being abused by security forces during their arrest.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, and as such should be enjoyed without restriction to the greatest extent possible. The UN expert on free assembly has stated that “the free flow of traffic should not automatically take precedence over freedom of peaceful assembly.” Further, two UN experts have concluded that “assemblies are an equally legitimate use of public space as commercial activity or the movement of vehicles and pedestrian traffic,” and therefore “a certain level of disruption to ordinary life caused by assemblies, including disruption of traffic, annoyance, and even harm to commercial activities, must be tolerated if the right is not to be deprived of substance.”
International law allows for dispersing a peaceful assembly only in rare cases, including if an assembly prevents access to essential services, such as medical care or serious and sustained interference with traffic or the economy. The onus is on the authorities to justify the limitation and prove the precise nature of the threats posed by the assembly. Further, organizers should be able to appeal such decisions in competent and independent courts. Even when security forces can lawfully disperse nonviolent assemblies, they should avoid the use of force to the greatest extent possible.
Lebanese authorities should impartially investigate allegations of excessive use of force by security forces at protests. Victims of unlawful use of force should receive prompt and adequate compensation. Detainees who have not been charged with a recognizable offense should be immediately released.
“If Lebanese authorities are serious about protecting citizens’ rights to protest, they should investigate allegations of misconduct and hold those responsible to account,” Stork said. “Only then will the Lebanese have full confidence in the security forces’ ability to protect them in their fight against corruption and impunity.”
Failure to Protect Peaceful Protesters
Protesters told Human Rights Watch that on at least six occasions, soldiers and riot police units mostly stood by instead of protecting demonstrators or trying to stop the attacks on them by violent groups whose flags and chants indicated that they were supporters of Hezbollah and Amal.
Human Rights Watch researchers observed one such attack in downtown Beirut on October 29, and interviewed six protesters who were at the scene. At about 12:30 p.m., hundreds of people chanting slogans in support of the Amal leader, Nabih Berri, who is the parliament speaker, and the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, attacked peaceful demonstrators who were blocking the Ring road in central Beirut. Riot police separated the attackers from the demonstrators, but the attackers quickly broke through the riot police formation and beat and kicked protesters and hurled rocks and metal rods at them.
Timour Azhari, a Daily Star journalist, told Human Rights Watch that one of the assailants punched him and beat him to the ground, while another punched and kicked his cameraman, Hasan Shaaban, in the ribs. Christoph, a 36-year-old tour guide, said that an attacker punched him in the face as he was observing the attack. He needed stitches on his cheek and eyelid, and his doctor told him that he had been hit with brass knuckles. Ali Awada, an An-Nahar journalist, said that the attackers viciously beat him on his legs and arms.
Human Rights Watch observed some riot police standing on the sidelines during the attacks while others tried halfheartedly to stop the attack. All the protesters interviewed said that security forces did not do enough to stop the attack. “It appeared as though security forces were acting as individuals, not as an organized force,” Awada said. “Some officers were clashing with the Amal and Hezbollah guys, and others just didn’t do anything. They were basically watching.”
By around 2 p.m., the attackers had reached Martyrs’ Square, where they burned, vandalized, and looted the protesters’ tents. Five witnesses said that security forces did not attempt to stop this attack. Azhari said that although the burning of tents lasted more than 30 minutes, the authorities sent no additional forces. A video shared on social media appeared to show a lone security officer attempting to put out a fire with a small bottle of water.
The attackers advanced onto Riad al-Solh Square. At around 2:50 p.m., riot police fired tear gas to disperse them. Human Rights Watch did not observe the security forces making any arrests. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, an ad hoc group of pro-bono lawyers that interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims, concluded that although the evidence suggested that the attack was coordinated, none of the attackers were arrested. The Lebanese Red Cross transported at least 11 wounded protesters to nearby hospitals.
Five people said that supporters of Amal and Hezbollah beat and terrorized them and other protesters in Nabatieh, in south Lebanon, on two occasions. One protester said that after midnight on October 18, at least 30 Amal supporters surrounded him and about 30 other protesters who were holding a sit-in near the Serail, the municipal government headquarters. “They began beating us with sticks and the chairs we were sitting on, while insulting us and telling us that we can’t speak negatively about Berri,” the Amal leader and parliament speaker.
He said that the Amal supporters warned protesters that “whoever comes into the street, we will break their legs.” He said that many people were seriously injured and two had to be taken to the hospital – one with a broken arm and bruises all over his body, and the other with a broken nose. Although the Internal Security Force’s Nabatieh headquarters are in the Serail, the protester said that the security forces did not intervene.
Hundreds of people attacked protesters in front of the Serail building again on October 23. Four protesters who were there said that at around 3 p.m., more than 400 men whom they knew to be Hezbollah supporters attacked peaceful protesters, with sticks and sharp metal objects, including beating women, children, and older people indiscriminately. The protesters said that municipal police, whom they allege are under Hezbollah’s control, participated in the attack.
One protester said that the attackers beat him from all sides on his neck, shoulder, and leg. Another said that he saw “thugs” beating a 4-year-old girl and a 75-year-old woman. Two said that the attackers targeted anyone filming or recording the attack. “Injured protesters were lying on the floor, beaten and some unconscious, from all ages…You cannot imagine how terrifying it was to witness,” one protester said.
All four protesters said that Internal Security Forces present did not intervene to protect the demonstrators. One said the forces retreated into their headquarters in the Serail when the attack began. An hour later, protesters said, the army intervened to separate the attackers from the demonstrators. Those interviewed said that neither the army nor the security forces arrested any attackers.
Local media reported and protesters told Human Rights Watch that at least 25 people were injured. The Lebanese Red Cross said that it transported five injured protesters to the hospital and treated four at the scene. One protester said that a 16-year-old boy suffered a severe spinal cord injury and remains in intensive care.
A protester in Bint Jbeil, in southern Lebanon, said that Amal supporters attacked peaceful protesters on October 21. At about 6 p.m., he said, 50 Amal supporters armed with big rocks, glass, pipes, and sticks descended on about 1,000 protesters gathered in front of the Bint Jbeil municipal building. They were “beating us senseless,” he said. He said that the attack lasted for less than 10 minutes because the attack was so brutal that demonstrators quickly fled.
The protester said that although the army had two tanks near the demonstration and dozens of fully armed soldiers, they did not intervene to protect the protesters and retreated when the attack began. He also said that security forces did not arrest any attackers.
A protester in Sour said that about a dozen Amal supporters attacked and destroyed the protesters’ tents in Sour’s al-Alam Square in the early hours of October 30, in a “systematic way.” He said that the Internal Security Forces were there but did not intervene and that the army eventually ejected the “thugs” from the square but did not arrest any. “At any point, we can get attacked,” he said. “But I don’t have confidence in the security forces to protect us.”
Use of Excessive Force
The Lebanese security forces have in at least 12 instances appeared to use excessive force to clear roadblocks set up by protesters around the country. On October 29, three protesters told Human Rights Watch that the army used tear gas and fired rubber bullets at about 100 protesters, including women and children, who off and on since October 17 had been blocking the main road in the north Lebanon town of Abdeh and beat the protesters with batons.
Human Rights Watch observed security forces pushing protesters and beating some with batons to clear roadblocks at the Ring road in central Beirut on October 31, and at the Tehwita intersection in Furn el-Chebbak on October 25. Human Rights Watch also spoke with witnesses and reviewed video footage of security forces beating protesters to clear roadblocks on the Ring road in Beirut on October 26, in Saida on October 23, October 24, October 28, and November 1, on the Jal el-Dib highway on October 23, October 31, and November 5, and in Nahr el Kalb on October 23.
Human Rights Watch observed, and witnesses said, that during these incidents, security forces used batons and the butts of their rifles to beat protesters who were blocking roads, and in some cases detained protesters. Six protesters said they were injured during the clearing of roadblocks in Beirut, Abdeh, and Saida.
One protester in Abdeh, Omar, said that the army began gathering in the Abdeh Square at around 8 p.m. Between 100 and 150 protesters, among them women and children, and the head of the Bebnine municipality, were blocking the main road.
Omar said that at around 8:15 p.m., an army commander told the head of the municipality that if the protesters did not open the road, the army would open it by force. He said the army then started advancing toward the protesters, who were chanting “peaceful, peaceful.”
“Whoever tried to resist or speak was hit with batons,” Omar said. He said that he saw a soldier hit a woman on her head with a baton, and others hit him with batons while he was filming the incident. Omar said that the army then fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd as they dragged and detained protesters. Video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch appears to corroborate Omar’s account.
Another protester said that as he was watching the army advance, a soldier grabbed him and dragged him away. He said that 15 to 20 soldiers started beating and kicking him, including with batons and rifle butts. The protester said that one of his eardrums exploded as a result. He said the army transferred him to the military police in al-Qobbeh who released him the next day. “People are broken,” he said. “We’re all broken. Our rights have been forgotten.”
Bilal, another protester participating in the Abdeh roadblock, said that the army shot him in the leg with a rubber bullet, and he saw soldiers injuring two other protesters. “It was a war scene, it was horrifying,” Bilal said.
The army has forcibly re-opened the Jal el-Dib highway north of Beirut on several occasions, including on October 23, October 31, and November 5. A protester, Tony, said that at 8:30 a.m. on November 5, the army cleared the highway by stepping on protesters who were blocking the road with their bodies, beating them, and arresting 20. Footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch appears to show the army beating protesters, including with batons. Tony said that the army released 17 detainees and turned over the other 3 to army intelligence.
“I got hit with a baton by the army on my back,” Tony said. “One protester suffered a head injury and got three stitches. A young woman who was sitting on the front line was stepped on by an army officer and kicked in the ribs. Her rib is broken.”
Protesters in Saida said that the army and army intelligence tried to forcibly reopen roads there on multiple occasions, including on October 23, October 24, October 28 and November 1. Four protesters at the Awwali bridge at the entrance to Saida on the morning of October 28 said that army and army intelligence forces violently re-opened the road. The protesters said that in the early hours of the morning, about 20 army trucks arrived carrying soldiers armed with batons and shields.
“They were screaming, pushing, cursing, and scaring the protesters so that we would run,” a protester said. All four protesters said that the army intelligence officers were the most violent. “The intelligence were attacking people in a barbaric way,” a protester said. “Some were beating boys and girls with the butts of their rifles.”
One of the protesters, a 22-year-old woman, said that she was standing in the front lines with other women to prevent the violence, but security forces even attacked the women. “The rifle hit my stomach and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I fell to the ground.” She heard a commander give an order to “finish them [protesters], and then bring the ambulances to collect them.”
Two of the protesters said that the army beat one protester so violently on his head that he had to be immediately transferred to the hospital. The protesters said the army arrested at least five people but released them the same day.
Internal Security Forces officers arrested and violently beat Salim Ghadban, 29, as he watched them arrest four protesters who occupied the Banks Association in downtown Beirut on November 1. “They beat me mercilessly,” Ghadban said. “If I dared open my mouth, they beat me harder.”
At the el-Helou police station, Ghadban said, the officers did not allow him to call a lawyer, doctor, or his family, in violation of Lebanon’s Code of Criminal Procedure. Ghadban was released at 7 p.m. the same day. “I have a serious injury to my head, my forehead, under my eye, between my eye and nose, and on my eyelid, shoulder, and back. My nose is broken,” he said. Human Rights Watch reviewed his medical report, which corroborated Ghadban’s account.
Targeting People Recording Attacks
Five people said that security forces tried to prevent them from filming the abuse, in some cases using excessive force. Awada, the An-Nahar journalist, said that officers ordered him to stop filming the security forces attack on protesters on the Ring highway in Beirut on October 29. “When I refused, an ISF officer attacked me from the back, grabbed my arm forcefully and dislocated my shoulder, forcing me to stop filming,” he said.
Layal bou Moussa, an Al Jadeed TV reporter, said that the army stopped reporters from two other local TV stations, MTV and LBCI, from filming them pushing and beating protesters to reopen the road in Nahr el Kalb and Zouk Mosbeh on October 23, although they allowed her to continue her live reporting.
A protester said that he took videos of the army beating protesters at the Tehwita roundabout on October 25. “The army then came to look through my phone and saw that I had taken the videos,” he said, adding that the army detained him briefly because he filmed the incident.
Another protester said that army intelligence officers attacked people filming the army beating protesters blocking the highway in Saida on October 28. A protester in Jal el Dib similarly said that the army were ordering people not to film them reopening the road on November 5 and were confiscating the phones of people recording the incident.
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November 8, 2019: We corrected this press release to use the term armed men instead of militias.