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An anti-government protester holds a Lebanese flag in front the riot police during a protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) unjustifiably used excessive, including lethal, force against protesters in Tripoli on April 27, 2020, killing one protester and injuring scores more, Human Rights Watch said. The army has expressed its “regret” about the protester’s death and said it has opened an investigation into the incident.

On the night of April 27, hundreds of protesters, in defiance of the Covid-19 lockdown, gathered in Tripoli’s Nour Square to protest the rapidly deteriorating standards of living during Lebanon’s economic crisis. Dozens of protesters torched and otherwise damaged banks, set an army vehicle on fire, and threw stones and fireworks at the soldiers. The soldiers fired live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas at protesters.

“Tripoli is one of the most impoverished cities in the country, and the Lebanese government has failed to guarantee people’s right of access to food and other basic necessities,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The army’s unjustified use of lethal force has further enflamed the situation and cost the life of one young man who was demanding his rights.”

The government must meet its obligation to conduct an effective investigation – one that is independent and transparent, and examines the conduct of the entire operation including the role and responsibility of superior officers in the chain of command, Human Rights Watch said. The government should make public the findings and all measures of accountability, including criminal liability.

Lebanon has been going through the worst economic crisis in decades, compounded by lockdown measures to stem the spread of Covid-19. The value of the Lebanese lira has plummeted and fueling inflation, which the Finance Ministry estimated will reach 27 percent in 2020. Banks have restricted the dollars people may withdraw or transfer abroad from their accounts. Earlier in April, Human Rights Watch warned that more than half of Lebanon’s population may be at risk of hunger if the government does not urgently carry out a robust assistance plan.

Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-most-populous city and one of the poorest in the country. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that 53 percent of working age Tripoli residents were unemployed.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four protesters who witnessed the violence on April 27, 2020 and one journalist who documented the clashes and reviewed footage of the events. Human Rights Watch cannot independently verify the accounts or the footage.

The witnesses said that hundreds of protesters – including women, children, and the elderly – gathered at Nour Square in Tripoli around 9 p.m., after the evening Ramadan prayers. They planned to march to parliament members’ homes to protest the desperate economic situation, which they said has caused many Tripoli residents to go hungry.

Two witnesses said that as soon as demonstrators reached the home of Faysal Karameh, an independent parliament member who represents Tripoli, Karameh’s bodyguards began firing live ammunition into the air, and the army started beating people, launching teargas, and firing rubber bullets onto the protesters – some of whom responded by throwing stones at the soldiers.

The witnesses said they returned to Nour Square, where the army was also beating people and firing rubber bullets and launching teargas indiscriminately. “I could see people falling down all around me,” one said. Another said that when he arrived there, around 9:30 p.m., he saw many injured people on the ground. “I went to the middle of the square to help the people who were injured and move them away, but the army didn’t respect that and kept shooting,” he said.

Some protesters were vandalizing and torching banks while others were throwing stones at the soldiers in an attempt to drive them out of the square. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage showing protesters smashing the windows of the Banque Libano-Française in Nour Square and setting it on fire. Human Rights Watch also reviewed footage showing some protesters throwing rocks at soldiers and throwing Molotov cocktails at an empty army vehicle in Nour Square, while the soldiers fired rubber bullets.

A protester said as soon as some protesters set the empty army vehicle on fire, the army began firing live ammunition at protesters indiscriminately. All four witnesses said they saw the army firing live ammunition in the air and toward protesters, including as they were fleeing, causing serious injuries. The witnesses said that the soldiers chased protesters down nearby the alleys, firing at them. The footage appears to show soldiers shooting a protester in the leg as he fled down a side street.

One witness said that when the violence became too intense, he and a group of about 30 protesters approached the soldiers with their hands in the air, and a young man in the group pleaded with them to stop firing. A soldier then fired a rubber bullet at the young man’s chest, the witness said. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage showing a young man bleeding profusely from a chest wound, which the protester said was the young man who was pleading with the army. A local journalist said the wounded man is still in critical condition.

One protester, Fawwaz Fouad al-Seman, 26, died as a result of his wounds during the clashes. His family said that he died on the morning of April 28 from wounds from live ammunition fired by soldiers. Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer at The Legal Agenda, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization, said that they have not been able to confirm if al-Seman was shot by live or rubber bullets, but that preliminary evidence indicates it was live bullets.

The army did not deny that it fired live ammunition, but insisted that shots were only fired into the air. The army also expressed its “regret” about the death and said it had opened an investigation. It reaffirmed its support for people’s right to free expression, qualifying that it should not devolve into “acts of vandalism that target private and public institutions.” An army spokesperson declined to provide further comment to Human Rights Watch.

The Lebanese Red Cross told local media that it treated 22 injured people at the scene and transported 25 to nearby hospitals. The army said that 40 of its members were injured, including 6 officers. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, an ad hoc group of pro-bono lawyers, the army arrested 9 protesters.

The Lebanese Army’s investigation needs to be effective, meaning that it must be prompt, fair, and independent of those being investigated; should include the participation of the families of the man killed; and be capable to identifying those responsible for the purpose of holding them to account. The results should be made public, and the authorities should prosecute anyone found to have broken the law, including superior officers. Victims of unlawful use of force by security forces should receive prompt compensation. The authorities should release detainees not charged with a recognizable offense.

The Lebanese government is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to free expression and peaceful assembly. Mere participation in a demonstration, including those without permits, or peacefully criticizing the government, are not grounds for arrest under international law. The authorities should release all protesters who have not been charged with a recognizable criminal offense.

Lebanese security forces engaged in law enforcement duties should strictly abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles set out authoritatively state obligations under international human rights law on protection of the right to life and bodily integrity. They state that law enforcement officials should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force.

Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must act in proportion to the threat to life or serious injury. Firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly. If the use of force to disperse violent protests is unavoidable, for example to protect law enforcement or others from violence, the security forces must use only the minimum level of force necessary to contain the situation. Intentional use of lethal firearms is only permitted to protect life.

The UN Basic Principles also require authorities to promptly report on and investigate all incidents of law enforcement officials killing or injuring people with firearms through an independent administrative or prosecutorial process.

“People demanding to live in dignity should expect protection, not lethal force, from Lebanon’s army,” Majzoub said. “The death of a protester should prompt the army to re-evaluate its security strategy and operations, as well as strengthen its accountability systems.”

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