Lebanon: Authorities must protect peaceful protesters and respect their right to assemble

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The Lebanese authorities must take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of peaceful protesters, respect their right to freedom of assembly, including the legitimate blocking of roads, and refrain from trying to forcefully disperse peaceful assemblies, Amnesty International said on the ninth day of nationwide anti-government protests.

While the army has by and large ensured peaceful protesters’ right to protest across the country, in three separate incidents over the past week army officers both resorted to excessive violence to disperse protesters and failed to protect peaceful protesters from violence by members of non-state groups.

“As we enter the ninth day of protests, the Lebanese authorities must ensure the protection of peaceful protesters and their ability to exercise their right to freedom of assembly without fear of harassment or -most importantly – of attack by supporters of political parties opposed to the protests.” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

“Lebanese protesters are making their voices heard in a peaceful manner – the authorities have an obligation to uphold and protect this right, which can include the blocking of roads. Heavy-handed policing or violent dispersal will only increase tensions and provoke hostility, which could lead to a dangerous turn in what has so far largely been a peaceful wave of protests.”

Amnesty International staff observed the protests, spoke with 12 eyewitnesses and reviewed audio-visual material corroborating witness testimonies.

Legitimate roadblocks

The right of peaceful protesters to demonstrate on and block public roads has consistently been upheld by international human rights bodies which view urban spaces as a legitimate space for protest. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association has stated that “the free flow of traffic should not automatically take precedence over freedom of peaceful assembly.”

Restrictions can only be placed on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly where strictly necessary, proportionate and provided by law – such as clearing a access road to a hospital or removing an assembly which has caused substantial disruption for a significant period of time to accommodate a pressing social need.

The response from army forces ordered to clear the makeshift barricades set up by protesters to block several main roads has so far been largely restrained. However, during at least one incident in Saida, south Lebanon, Amnesty International found that army officers resorted to the excessive use of force to disperse peaceful protesters without justification.

Failure to protect peaceful protesters

The Lebanese army acted as buffer between rival protesters to a large extent across the country; however in at least two incidents that took place in southern Lebanon, documented by Amnesty International, one in Nabatiyyeh and another in Sour, eight eyewitnesses told Amnesty that security forces had failed to intervene to protect peaceful protesters who came under attack by supporters of Amal and Hezbollah parties, some of whom were armed.

On 23 October in the southern town of Nabatiyyeh, a large group of men identified by eyewitnesses as supporters of Hizbullah and Amal Movement accompanied by members of the municipality police, attacked a group of peaceful protestors gathered in a square close to Nabatiyyeh City Municipality. The following day at least four members of the Nabatiyyeh municipal council announced their resignation in protest at the involvement of the municipal police in the violence against protesters.

The protest started peacefully in the early morning, until the attack started at 3 in the afternoon when dozens of men armed with sticks and batons stormed the protestors, hitting them with batons and their hands, insulting them and dispersing them. An eyewitness told Amnesty International:

“They began to beat protesters with sticks and push us, they tried to beat me and seize my phone because I was filming… There were security forces there, but they stood on the sideline, and anyway they couldn’t follow them as there was a large number of them,” said “Fatima”, a teacher from Nabatiyyeh.

Another eyewitness told Amnesty International that the group of men were supporters or members of the political party and armed group Hizbullah: “I saw members of Hizbullah. Even the municipality police who attacked us are members of Hizbullah. We know many of them because they are from our villages. They first attacked the reporting team from Al Jadeed TV and broke their camera. Then they started hitting protesters with sticks and dragging people on the street.”

Another account from Nabatiyeh confirmed that the attack continued for almost an hour until the army arrived and protected the protesters around 4 pm: “They were more than 250 people. They broke the TV camera, then they started hitting whoever they laid their hands on. They were hitting us with their hands and sticks. The army came around 4 pm and protected the protesters by forming a shield between us and the thugs,” an eyewitness told Amnesty International.

In a separate incident that took place 18 October in the southern city of Sour, eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that army officers had allowed visibly armed supporters of the Amal party to cross army lines and assault peaceful protesters. According to the testimonies gathered by Amnesty International, dozens of armed men started attacking the protesters, pushing them and beating them with sticks and rifle butts as army officers failed to intervene. Two protesters were hospitalized as a result, and none of the men who carried out the attacks were arrested.

“As attacks from supporters of ruling parties have been witnessed since the beginning of the protests and seem to be ongoing, members of the armed forces have a duty to ensure that the right to peaceful protest is upheld and that includes protecting peaceful demonstrators from coming under attack from rival protesters and armed men.” said Lynn Maalouf.

Army’s attempts to forcibly remove roadblocks

On 23 October officers from the Lebanese army and army intelligence resorted to excessive force in seeking to disperse protesters who had blocked the main Awwali highway linking the capital Beirut to the southern city of Saida. Protesters had blocked the road but continued to allow emergency vehicles and army vehicles to go through.

Protesters had been gathering at the spot since 5am, according to eyewitnesses. Negotiations ensued between them and army officers who were asking them to remove the roadblock. According to all the testimonies collected by Amnesty International, shortly before 8am, a high-ranking officer told the protesters that the army had received orders to open the road by force and that they had 20 minutes to leave peacefully.

Officers armed with riot shields then began to forcibly remove protesters who sat on the ground with their arms raised as a peaceful sign, carrying them away and handcuffing them. They also kicked and beat protesters with iron batons as well as verbally assaulting them. Amnesty International spoke with four individuals who were present at the scene:

“I was wearing a keffieh [scarf]… They grabbed me by it [and] dragged me across the ground like a dog. They were hitting us with their Plexiglas shields. I was beaten until I passed out,” said Mostafa Fayyad, one protester who was subsequently hospitalized for his wounds.

Another protester, Mohammed Kanso, said: “They came down on us with beatings with iron batons, boots and punches wherever they could strike. Two young men were beaten on their heads and lost consciousness.”