Lebanese authorities backslide on commitments to civic freedoms
On 16th June 2017, citizen-led actions against parliament’s vote to extend its own mandate for the third time were met with violence. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the political crisis in Lebanon has left the government in a state of inertia; political parties have been unable to reach an agreement on a new electoral law since 2013. On the 16th June 2017, parliamentarians finally ratified a new law, changing to a proportional representation system that will replace the old plurality voting method. A general election is now planned for May 2018. Given that the last general election was in 2009 and the current parliament has more than doubled the time it has served, many have decried the unpopular decision to extend the parliament's term until 2018.
While MPs voted, a protest outside the parliament in Beirut was met with excessive force. An altercation began when protesters threw eggs and tomatoes at a parliamentarian's motorcade. In response, Lebanese security forces began to punch, kick and use batons on unarmed protesters. The video below captures one of the violent clashes in which at least seven people were injured.
International and domestic civil society organisations have urged Lebanese authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the brutal attacks. And many have also expressed deep concern over the security service's pattern of violence during protests. To illustrate their concerns, the United Nations Committee Against Torture recently highlighted the tactics used to disperse protests in Lebanon. In its concluding observations on 30th May 2017, the Committee noted the lack of adequate investigations into violence perpetrated by security forces during the wave of YouStink protests in 2015. This impunity for abuses against peaceful protesters remains a serious concern for human rights watchdog groups in Lebanon.
Concerns continue to grow over the Lebanese authorities' lack of commitment to freedom of expression and the unwarranted use of military courts against critics of the regime. The recent case of Selman Samaha has prompted fears that Lebanon is backsliding on its commitments to fundamental freedoms by unjustifiably persecuting those who criticise the military. Samaha was summoned for an investigation by the military police in Mount Lebanon on 27th October 2016, after he had posted on Facebook regarding the Lebanese military. After questioning him, the military tribunal summoned Samaha to appear in court on 26th May 2017 on charges of “offending the reputation of the military institution", which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
On 26th May 2017, nine domestic and regional CSOs issued a joint statement on Samaha's case and called upon the Lebanese authorities to respect freedom of expression and uphold a fair judicial process. Samaha was later acquitted of all charges against him. However, as previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the use of military courts in civilian trials has led many to question the integrity of Lebanon's judicial process.
On 26th May 2017, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) was forced to postpone an eight-day workshop when the venue owners refused to host the meeting. The venue - Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beirut - cited concerns over the AFE's affiliation with LGBTI organisations, as they had publicly supported the Lebanese gay rights group Helem. Both AFE and Helem have been involved in recent public activities to promote the rights of LGBTI people in Lebanon. The workshop was to bring together twenty activists from across the Middle East and North Africa region to discuss “Media Literacy and Strategic planning," and plane tickets for participants had already been booked.
In a statement, AFE called for a public boycott of the Crown Plaza and its affiliates, noting the discriminatory practices used against a registered civil society organisation without any compensation for losses incurred as a result of the refusal to provide the venue.
"Despite lacking any valid reason, evidence, or plausible cause for concern, the Crowne Plaza’s management has taken active steps to impede the important work of AFE because of its social empowerment and support of human rights causes and freedom values in Lebanon. This incident is considered to be an unprecedented and alarming escalation in the latest string of attempts from government and extremist religious sources in Lebanon to suppress the work of Lebanese civil society institutions",
The hotel owners subsequently claimed their decision was a result of pressure from Lebanese authorities. While some have questioned this excuse, others have used this incident to draw attention to issues of discrimination faced by members of the LGBTI community in Lebanon.