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Lebanese protesters wave national flags during demonstrations to demand better living conditions on October 21, 2019 in downtown Beirut. © ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – A spate of prosecutions since the outbreak of nationwide protests on October 17, 2019 against activists and journalists critical of government policies and corruption is threatening free speech and opinion in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said today.

Security agencies called in at least 29 people for interrogation concerning free speech charges, including insult and defamation, between October 17, 2019 and March 6, 2020. Insult and defamation are criminal offenses in Lebanon, with prison terms of up to three years. Media also reported that at least 20 people, including at least 18 children, were briefly detained and interrogated in 2 separate incidents for tearing down posters of politicians and the president.

“Instead of heeding the protesters’ demands for accountability, those in power in Lebanon are bringing criminal charges against activists and journalists exposing corruption and peacefully expressing their opinions on social media,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Such practices only reinforce the need to reform Lebanon’s abusive criminal defamation laws immediately.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six activists who were recently interrogated by security agencies after politicians and other prominent people filed criminal insult and defamation lawsuits against them for their posts on social media.

The Internal Security Force’s Cybercrimes Bureau interrogated Khaldoun Jaber, an activist, on March 2 over a complaint filed by the head of a municipality whom Jaber had accused of corruption in an article posted in July. Jaber told Human Rights Watch that his interrogation lasted two hours, and that he was not asked to sign a pledge or take down the article.

Jaber said that on March 3, the military intelligence branch in the Bekaa governorate summoned him for interrogation over social media posts deemed to insult the presidency and the military. He said he refused to appear there because he has a pending torture complaint against the same agency.

“The state is using these repressive tactics to intimidate us into stopping our protest activities,” Jaber told Human Rights Watch. “But after October 17 is not the same as before October 17…. We won’t let them take the dream from us.”

On February 27, the Internal Security Force’s Central Criminal Investigations Directorate interrogated Gino Raidy, a prominent blogger, and Dima Sadek, a journalist, after a political party filed a lawsuit accusing them of “publishing fake news” and “inciting sectarian strife.” Raidy said that his Instagram and Twitter posts in question reflected real events and statements made by that political party. He said he was released after being questioned for an hour and a half, and said he was not asked to delete the posts or sign a pledge.

The Cybercrimes Bureau interrogated another prominent activist, Charbel Khoury, on February 24, after an advisor to a leading politician filed a defamation lawsuit against him. Khoury had criticized the advisor in a tweet. Khoury said that after his hour-long interrogation, officers at the Cybercrimes Bureau told him that he would need to remove his Tweet and sign a pledge promising not to insult the adviser. When Khoury refused, he said, the public prosecutor on his case ordered his arrest.

Officers took him to a small, overcrowded, and dirty cell in the bureau. Khoury said that he was detained for about five hours, during which officers tried three times to convince him to sign the pledge. “They were negotiating like they were haggling over a sack of potatoes,” Khoury said. He said he was released after public pressure led the complainant to withdraw the lawsuit.

State Security, an intelligence agency known to be linked to the presidency, interrogated Firas bou Hatoum, an activist, on February 13, on charges of insulting the president on his Facebook posts. Bou Hatoum said that his interrogation lasted five hours, during which officers asked for personal details unrelated to the case, including about his wife and children, in what Bou Hatoum said was an attempt to intimidate him.

Bou Hatoum said he was made to remove his offending posts and sign a pledge promising not to insult the president again: “The officers told me either you sign, or you go to prison. I have two kids, I didn’t have a choice.” He said that this experience affected his ability to express himself freely. “I am still writing, but not everything because I know I may be called in again,” he said.

On January 7, the Internal Security Force’s Cybercrimes Bureau interrogated Nidal Ayoub, a prominent activist and journalist, after another journalist filed a complaint against her. The charges included insulting the president, insulting God, and undermining the prestige of the state. Ayoub said she remained silent during her interrogation and refused to sign a pledge promising to refrain from making such statements.

Ayoub had previously filed a defamation lawsuit against the complainant for claiming in a video that she was a foreign agent. Ayoub said she received threats and was put at risk as a result. Yet the prosecution has not taken any action in relation to her complaint.

The Cybercrimes Bureau also interrogated an activist and cinematographer, Rabih el-Amine, on December 31, after the head of a bank filed a defamation lawsuit over a Facebook post that allegedly criticized and insulted him.. El-Amine said that he was questioned for about 4 hours, after which the officers, based on a judicial order, gave him 24 hours to remove the alleged insulting content from his Facebook post.

That evening, el-Amine said, the Cybercrimes Bureau called in him for interrogation again over defamatory comments he made during a media interview after his first interrogation. The Cybercrimes Bureau interrogated el-Amine again on January 3 for 2 hours, after which el-Amine said he signed a pledge to not insult or criticize the complainant personally but reserved the right to “speak about him politically.” El-Amine also removed the offending Facebook post.

Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law,” but the penal code criminalizes defamation against public officials with prison terms of up to one year. The penal code also authorizes sentences of up to two years for insulting the president and up to three years for insulting religious rituals. The military code of justice punishes insulting the flag or army with up to three years in prison.

Laws that allow imprisonment over peaceful criticism of individuals or government officials are incompatible with Lebanon’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

In November, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing a year-long investigation into attacks on freedom of expression in Lebanon. The investigation found that in dozens of cases between 2015 and 2019, public officials and security forces used criminal defamation and insult laws to retaliate against and silence people who criticized public officials or government policies, resulting in a chilling effect on free speech.

“Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws are being instrumentalized by the powerful to silence many of the activists involved in the nationwide protest movement,” Page said. “These politically motivated prosecutions underscore the need for Parliament to repeal laws criminalizing free speech.”

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