North Africa, West Asia

Is Lebanon becoming a police state?

A year after protests swept the country, two and a half months after the Beirut port explosion, the Lebanese elite is cracking down on dissent.

Walid el Houri
16 October 2020
Lebanese army soldiers attack protesters on Labour day, 1 May 2020
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Picture by Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

In the twelve months since protests lit the country, Lebanon has fallen head first into a spiral of accelerating events, led by an incompetent, corrupt, elite that has yet to take responsibility for any of its countless crimes.

A year ago, a buildup of state failure, economic hardship and loss of faith in the political establishment ignited the demonstrations across the country. Anger mixed with hope to produce the ‘October revolution’. Real change seemed possible.

Today, the anger remains. Hope, less so.

Given the choice to implement reforms – even if minimal – or curtail corruption – even if temporarily – to prevent the complete destruction of the country’s economy and people’s lives, Lebanon’s establishment has found an alternative: repression.

Not with a whimper, but a bang

For decades the ruling kleptocracy ran a Ponzi scheme by relentlessly borrowing to pay for an ever growing national debt so they could keep embezzling from the state. Inevitably, the bubble eventually burst. The Lebanese pound had been fixed at 1,500 to the dollar since 1997. In August 2019 the exchange rate started fluctuating, and a few months later there were 6 different dollar rates. The official one remains at 1,500. But in the reality of the black market, it reached nearly 9,000.

Being a dollar economy and relying heavily on imports, many in Lebanon have dollar accounts, but banks have blocked access to them while large depositors smuggle billions abroad. Today, one UN agency estimates 55 percent of people struggle for bare necessities – almost double last year’s rate. And this was all happening before the pandemic hit.

Then, in August, a massive explosion at the port of Beirut destroyed a sizeable part of the capital. Over 200 people were killed, thousands wounded. Countless are homeless, including many migrant workers and refugees with little or no access to support as they battle Lebanese racism.

A crime of that size could not conceivably be ignored. But as yet, no one has been held responsible. The investigation – mired by distrust in an authority that has shown time and again its incompetence and corruption – is lagging.

Instead of confronting any of the country’s many ills, the establishment has intensified its crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression

Saad Hariri’s government was toppled on 29 October 2019. On the anniversary of the protests, he seems to be moving to return as prime minister – even though President Michel Aoun has yet to hold the requisite parliamentary consultations.

“Militias and thugs”

Instead of confronting any of the country’s many ills, the establishment has intensified its crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.

Wassef Harakeh is a prominent activist and member of the popular observatory for the fight against corruption. He has been vocal in the struggle against the establishment. Speaking to me from Beirut, he explains that, “There is more than just a decline in freedoms in Lebanon, there is a systematic destruction of these freedoms as a result of a logic of the securitisation of rule.”

Harakeh confirms that, “There is an intimidation campaign, with journalists and activists being systematically called in for questioning, arrested, or prosecuted.”

In the past year, journalists and activists have been facing increasing challenges, with insecurity and threats coming from both state institutions and thugs affiliated to the various political parties in power.

IMG_20191103_164908.jpg
From the feminist block march on 3 November 2019 in Beirut | Picture by Walid El Houri

Nour Haidar, a lawyer with Beirut-based nonprofit The Legal Agenda says that the people behind this crackdown include not just police, but also “the Army, Army Intelligence, bodyguards of politicians, supporters of political parties, and public prosecutors across the country who pressed disproportionately harsh charges against protestors and held them in detention for weeks without cause.”

“This regime has various operational tools at its disposal in its assault on freedoms, including militias and thugs,” says Harakeh.

The forces leading this assault on freedom revolve around Lebanon’s complex network of political, financial and sectarian power. The military, the police, the judiciary are all part of the same network that includes many prominent business people, bankers, politicians, and media outlets. If that wasn’t enough, political parties and oligarchs often have an army, militia or thugs at their disposal when all else fails.

A failed judiciary power

One of the main problems is the judiciary system itself.

“Judicial power is a tool in the hands of... political power. It is not independent. So it is no surprise that the courts are busy prosecuting journalists and activists while those who are responsible for the economic collapse, corruption and lately the explosion in the port enjoy impunity,” says Harakeh.

“Unfortunately, if one writes a Facebook post, they would be prosecuted or called in for questioning, but those who have attacked the protesters, gauged their eyes, despite being filmed and despite cases filed against them, are left free,” he adds.

“Judicial power is a tool in the hands of... political power. It is not independent"

A group of lawyers involved in the protests have got together to defend people arrested due to the crackdown, calling themselves the Lawyer's Committee for the Defense of Protestors. Teaming up with The Legal Agenda, they have filed 15 complaints on behalf of 17 people alleging torture, “the investigating judge chose not to investigate,” Nour Haidar explains.

The lawyers have also filed a claim related to the use of live ammunition and shrapnel but, according to Haidar, this case remains under investigation, “we have not received any updates on these investigations.”

Going against Lebanese law

“Protestors mobilized to freely express their rejection of the current political and economic regime, they were met with violent crackdowns,” Haidar says. “Lebanese law is clear as to the fundamental importance of free expression and the right to protest”. Despite this, the state used mass arrests; police and army brutality, violence, torture; summons and interrogations for social media posts, and prosecutions, to quash protests, she adds.

The most common reason for arrest, says Haider, was "شغب", which is “often mis-translated to ‘rioting’”. In reality it is the offense of "not leaving a protest after being told to do so by security forces which became law while Lebanon was still under French mandate.”

Sometimes, she explains, the charges brought against protestors included: “violence against security forces or insulting the army” which, uniquely allows civilians to be tried in military courts in Lebanese law. “This is likely why they have used the charge of ‘violence against security forces’ so liberally,” Haidar explains.

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Protest on 31 October 2019 in Beirut | Picture by Walid El Houri

This week, The Legal Agenda published a report with much needed detail on the crackdown. Between 17 October 2019 and the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown on 15 April 2020, at least 967 people were arrested in connection with the protests. 58 were minors. 46 were not Lebanese nationals. From 16 April to 30 June 2020, an additional 208 people were arrested.

Digital repression

Lebanese NGO SMEX runs a database recording attacks on online freedom of speech. Using it, they’ve recorded nearly four times as many attacks as they did in 2017.

The attacks, they say, have targeted “citizens, journalists, and civil society” and were not limited to those who criticise or mock political or religious figures. There were also cases against those who “expose the state's financial standing.” The organisation explains that the latter “have increased dramatically since the economy has deteriorated” as the state has imprisoned people under old laws which suppress legitimate speech.

“Often, authorities interrogate and detain defendants ahead of their trials and attempt to coerce them into signing pledges to refrain from using social media"

In June, Lebanon’s Public Prosecutor launched an investigation to find out “who deliberately published posts against the president of the republic through social media, with the offense of defamation, slander and contempt.”

“Often, authorities interrogate and detain defendants ahead of their trials and attempt to coerce them into signing pledges to refrain from using social media or urge them to remove content from social media, which foster a culture of self-censorship,” says SMEX.

“Sometimes, journalists, activists and citizens are also attacked online by an electronic army, such as MP[’s] followers, before the authorities summon them.”

While most of those prosecuted in the courts are men, women face particularly gruesome abuse, often being “harassed, doxxed, and targeted on social media,” the NGO says.

No option to give up

As poverty and economic collapse sew wrath and reap racism, political deadlock continues. Leaders refuse to make concessions lest they lose the power that let’s them avoid accountability.

Failing to deliver justice or prosecute big crimes while resources are spent persecuting activists perpetuates the crisis.

Over two months since the explosion in the Beirut port, no one has yet been held accountable.

Haidar believes that the freedoms afforded by Lebanese law “have been severely eroded” as the criminal justice system has been allowed “to go after protestors and journalists”. This, she says “signals a troubling trend towards the fortification of a police state in Lebanon.”

Failing to deliver justice or prosecute big crimes while resources are spent persecuting activists perpetuates the crisis

As Harakeh says “The Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom. But they are using the legal text in the service of the ruling establishment rather than for the sake of justice.”

Lebanon’s corrupt elite have no qualms promising and posturing about fighting corruption – a seemingly abstract agent – while carrying on with their corrupt business as usual.

These days, promising to fight corruption is a standard part of any corrupt politician’s rhetoric.

The need for independent courts is crucial. “The most important and urgent solution is passing updated, sweeping legislation which ensures and protects the independence of the judiciary,” Haidar explains.

Harakeh, also believes that the struggle must continue, “The most important way to confront this authority and this repression campaign is by insisting on the right to freedom. The rest is details.”

“Our only hope is to achieve real change.”

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