General: Lebanon: Popular protests return as deteriorating economic situation causes widespread suffering

09.05.20

The authorities in Lebanon continue to enforce arbitrary and repressive policies to deal with the popular protest movement, which has erupted again, since the protests first began in October 2019. Security forces have summoned some journalists and activists for interrogation, and have chased down protesters in the streets and arrested them. Some protesters report that they have been beaten and tortured, including with electrocution, while in detention. In addition, the Lebanese army has used unjustified and excessive lethal force to confront the protesters. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) condemns the use of violence against protesters and calls for restraint in the face of peaceful protests.

Journalists and activists summoned and arrested

On 07 May 2020, journalist Ayman Sharrouf (pictured on the top right) stated on his Facebook page that he had received a call from the Army Intelligence Directorate at Rashaya barracks, asking him to come at 12 o'clock the next day, without being informed of the reasons. Human rights lawyer Diala Chehade also contacted the army on his behalf, inquiring about the reason for the summons and the judicial warrant, but she received no adequate answer. Chehade was not satisfied so she also applied to the Military Judiciary for the legal details of the summons.

Sharrouf uses his Facebook page to defend the popular protests and peacefully express his views on important events taking place in the country. He also writes and publishes articles in Al-Modon, an independent online newspaper. On 24 April 2020, he published an article about current Prime Minister Hassan Diab entitled, "Hassan Diab asks the American University to transfer its dues abroad". Observers believe it is the reason for the summons, that was issued despite violating normal legal procedures.

Sharrouf wrote on his Facebook page, "Freedom of expression is a red line. The law is above all, but we will not allow it to be a driver for repression and intimidation in any way." Thus, he refused to respond to the summons in its current, non-legally binding form.

During the past two weeks, dozens of activists have been summoned and arrested, and according to the statistics of the Lawyers Committee to Defend Protesters, the number of detainees who were subjected to violence is 207, and the number of participants in the popular movement who have been subjected to violence in the demonstration areas or places of detention has reached 661 protesters since the start of the protests on 17 October 2019 until 01 March 2020. The Committee indicated that, as of 06 May 2020, at least 23 detainees, including minors, were still being held in connection with protests that occurred at the end of April 2020, and took place in the cities of Tripoli, Saida and Zahle, protesting against the high cost of living and the deterioration of the value of the Lebanese lira.

On 03 May 2020, the Lawyers Committee to Defend Protesters also issued a statement stating that it was "following up on the arrest of dozens of protesters during this week in various Lebanese regions, especially Tripoli, Saida, Zahle and Al-Matn. The Committee has learned so far that at least 33 people remain under arrest." In the statement, it added that "many of the detainees were subjected to severe violence during their arrest, and within the transportation vehicles and places of detention of the Military Intelligence, according to the testimony of the lawyers who interviewed the detainees and the testimony of those who have been released so far. Initial evidence indicates that this violence aims to extract information and punish detainees, which could constitute torture crimes." The committee also stated that "the majority of those arrested have been forcibly disappeared without knowing the address and place of their detention for several days. The location of their detention was known only after the lawyers of the Lawyers Committee insisted." Finally, "None of the detainees was able to see a lawyer until after the request of the head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf."

On 01 May 2020, two activists, Dana Salloum and Rawan Al-Batlouni, were summoned to the Baakline Police Station, after using paint to write slogans on the walls of the banks in the city of Baakline El-Chouf.

Impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on demonstrations

The first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Lebanon on 21 February 2020, and the competent authorities announced in their latest statistics that the number of cases of confirmed cases reached 796 and the number of deaths 26. The Supreme Council of Defense announced public mobilisation on 15 March 2020. It has been extended several times and very recently until 24 May 2020. This was accompanied by the closure of schools and universities as of 29 February 2020, the closure of restaurants and tourist centres as of 06 March 2020, and the announcement of a curfew between 7 pm and 5 am as of 26 March 2020.

One of the results of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the government banned public gatherings and implemented curfews in order to prevent the spread of the disease, which led to the suspension of the popular movement in practice.

The closure measures have exacerbated the economic crisis, which is the worst in the contemporary history of Lebanon, as it has resulted in the deterioration of the economic situation of many citizens, the continuation of the decline in the value of the lira, the restriction by banks on the amounts that clients can withdraw from their personal accounts, and the spread of unemployment after many companies, factories and hotels stopped working. Already 30% of the population is living below the poverty line, a ratio that the World Bank expects to reach 50% for the year 2020.

The Lebanese government must fulfill its obligations according to Article (25) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

Thus, after being left to face successive crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, without effective steps for real reform by the government, some Lebanese people began to emerge again, despite the closure orders, to the streets to protest the dire economic situation in which they have found themselves.

Demonstrations begin again

On 07 May 2020, protests were organised in front of Parliament and the Palace of Justice in Beirut (picture on the left). They went out to the streets protesting the deteriorating living conditions, the high prices, the collapse of the exchange rate of the lira against the dollar, and the government's failure to take effective measures to reassure citizens. They also demanded the release of a number of detained protesters in Tripoli, the town of El-Marj in the Bekaa Valley, and Saida, who were arrested after the clashes that occurred between protesters and the security forces in the past days.

On the occasion of International Workers’ Day, on 01 May, dozens of demonstrators gathered, in the centre of Beirut, to protest against the high prices and living conditions. Others held marches in the cities of Tire and Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. Participants in these demonstrations carried Lebanese flags. They have raised several demands, including improving living conditions, addressing unemployment amongst young people, reducing the rising cost of food prices, and eliminating rampant corruption.

On 28 April 2020, Lebanon witnessed demonstrations in various regions, including Saida, Tripoli, and Beirut, where protesters condemned the spreading corruption that led to the deterioration of living conditions. Several protests were organised in front of a number of banks, which were interspersed with violence by some protesters, who threw firecrackers, Molotov cocktails and stones at the bank buildings, and clashed with the security forces.

On the morning of 28 April 2020, activist Fawaz Fouad Al-Samman (pictured on the bottom right), 26 years old, died from his wounds after he was shot with a live bullet in front of the Lebanese French Bank in Al-Nour Square in Tripoli during the confrontations between the army and the protesters.

His sister, activist Fatima Fouad Al-Samman, who was the first person to post an obituary about him on her Facebook page, said in an interview that her brother is, "The martyr of hunger, because he was demanding his simplest living rights as a result of the deteriorating economic conditions, the high dollar exchange rate against the Lebanese lira and the low purchasing power." She held the army and security forces responsible for killing her brother because, according to her words, "He died of live bullets, contrary to the army's narrative, after suffering severe bleeding in his stomach." The army command said on its Twitter account that "it has opened an investigation into the incident."

The protests erupted on 27 April 2020, in several Lebanese cities, including Tripoli, after the exchange rate of the lira fell to more than 4000 lira against the dollar and the deterioration of the economic situation. These demonstrations were accompanied by violence, which included breaking the fronts of some banks, and the army firing live bullets and rubber bullets at the demonstrators.

Tripoli, the second-largest Lebanese city, is the most densely populated and the poorest of all. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered around nine o'clock in Al-Nour Square protesting against their deteriorating living conditions. Clashes took place between the demonstrators and the army after some protesters smashed the front of banks, set fire and threw stones at the army in an attempt to get them away from the scene. The military personnel responded with both live and rubber bullets.

In a statement following these events, the Lebanese Red Cross said, "The number of response teams has been increased to 11 in Tripoli, and six wounded have been transferred to hospitals so far, in addition to treating 30 wounded on the spot." A statement by the Army Command issued on 29 April 2020, said that, "As a result of the riots that took place last night in Al-Nour Square in Tripoli, 50 soldiers were wounded, including six officers." Another statement issued by the Army Command on 30 April 2020 says, "During the popular demand protests in various Lebanese territories, and as a result of the riots that took place last night in the cities of Tripoli and Saida, 23 soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, and his fingers were amputated. The army has detained 24 people, including two Syrians and two Palestinians."

The popular protests originally began on 17 October 2019 and raised political and economic demands, such as those mentioned above. It is expected that the momentum of public participation in the popular protests will be strengthened after the end of the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are allowed to gather publicly again.

Government approves new economic-financial plan following protests

On 30 April 2020, in light of the escalation of the popular movement despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Council of Ministers approved the economic-financial plan unanimously. As Prime Minister Diab explained, "The plan that was approved is not only historic but rather determines the path of the Lebanese state to fix the current reality."

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights urges the government in Lebanon to:

  1. Ensure that the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, the Public Prosecution at the Court of Cassation, the Military Public Prosecution, the Army Intelligence Directorate, police stations, and all other security agencies that have the authority to detain demonstrators end all acts of torture, ill-treatment, and enforced disappearance against activists, demonstrators and all residents;
  2. Conduct an independent, impartial, comprehensive and prompt investigation into the recent incidents of summons, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment of demonstrators and activists, with the aim of disseminating the results and bringing those responsible to justice according to international standards;
  3. Require authorities, including the Army Intelligence Directorate and all its branches, to apply fundamental legal procedures for detainees, including protesters and activists, and allow them to contact their families and appoint a lawyer in all cases;
  4. Release all peaceful protesters and activists immediately and without restrictions and conditions;
  5. Refrain from using unjustified and excessive lethal force against peaceful the protesters; and
  6. Ensure that all human rights defenders in Lebanon who carry out their legitimate work in defense of human rights are able to operate without facing restrictions, including judicial harassment.