Arrests of Lebanese activists continue

An anti-government protester shouts slogans in front of riot policemen during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 29, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 20 June 2020

Arrests of Lebanese activists continue

  • Crackdown decried as assault on freedom of expression amid mounting criticism of govt

BEIRUT: An increasing number of activists in Lebanon are being arrested amid mounting criticism on social media of the government’s handling of the country’s worsening economy.

In the latest such incident, activist Michel Chamoun was arrested on Thursday by state security for writing comments on social media that were deemed humiliating to President Michel Aoun.

Dozens of protesters blocked the main road linking Beirut to Jbeil and Tripoli, demanding the immediate release of Chamoun and chanting slogans and insults against Aoun and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil.

This led to clashes with security forces before army commandos and military police intervened. An army officer and a number of protesters were injured.

On Thursday evening, Chamoun was released after Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, intervened.

Chamoun said he was released due to pressure from the protesters, and prior to his release he had “to sign a pledge not to insult the president of the republic anymore.” But he insisted: “I will criticize anyone I want as we live in a democratic republic.”

After his release, Chamoun headed with Khalaf to join the protesters on Jounieh highway. Then the protesters opened the road for traffic.

Lawyer Hassan Bazzi, a member of the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon, told Arab News: “Freedom of expression in Lebanon is sacred, as stressed by the Bar Association. It’s protected by the Lebanese constitution.”

But, he said, “what activists on social media don’t know is that there are limits to criticism, and the law forbids insulting the president of the republic.”

Bazzi added: “People can no longer stand the pressure they live under due to the dire financial and economic situation, which has made them lose faith in the country.”

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Dozens of protesters blocked the main road linking Beirut to Jbeil and Tripoli, chanting slogans and insults against President Aoun and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil.

It is “unacceptable for the political authority to try to intimidate activists, or to threaten them with arrest unless they delete their comments,” he said.

“This is something to be done only upon a ruling by a judge upon the request of the public prosecutor. However, all security agencies try to intimidate opponents.”

The whereabouts of activist Kinda Khatib and her brother Bandar are still unknown after she was arrested by state security for publishing comments on social media. A campaign was launched on social media accusing her of being an Israeli agent.

“In Lebanon, whoever insults the president is sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, while whoever insults God Almighty is sentenced to only one year in prison,” said Bazzi.

“Parliament doesn’t intend to amend these laws for it runs against the interests of the political authority, which fears the mounting criticism of the people and protests on the streets.”

Communication officer of the Samir Kassir Foundation Jad Shahrour said during the last three years, repression in Lebanon has increased and public freedoms have diminished, especially after the demonstrations that erupted in October 2019.

“There were more than 95 violations of the rights of media professionals and activists, including 18 cases that were referred to court trial,” he added.

“This aims to make people aware that whoever expresses something that might annoy the political authority would be subject to arrest and interrogation.”

The law on freedom of expression “is more than 30 years old, and doesn’t take into consideration that concepts and values have changed, and that methods of expression have evolved,” Shahrour said. “Yet the state is seizing the opportunity to proceed with its oppression.”

 


UN fails to find consensus after Russia, China veto on Syrian aid

A woman talks with a soldier of the Syrian army during distribution of humanitarian aid from the Russian military, in the town of Rastan, Syria. (AP)
Updated 16 min 31 sec ago

UN fails to find consensus after Russia, China veto on Syrian aid

  • Russia and China argue that the UN authorization violates Syria’s sovereignty, and that aid can increasingly be channeled through Syrian authorities

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council failed to find a consensus on prolonging cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria on Friday after Russia and China vetoed an extension and members rejected a counter proposal by Moscow.
Without an agreement, authorization for the transport of aid to war-torn Syria, which has existed since 2014, expired Friday night.
Germany and Belgium were working on a final initiative to save the effort, with hopes of bringing it to a vote this weekend.
“We are ready to work round the clock, and call on others to think of the millions of people in Syria waiting for the Security Council to decide their fate,” said German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month.
After Moscow and Beijing wielded vetoes for a second time this week, only three countries joined Russia in backing its proposal to cut the number of aid transit points from two to one.
China supported Russia, but seven countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Belgium voted against, with four abstentions.
An attempt by Russia to pass a similar resolution also failed earlier this week.
The NGO Oxfam had warned that stopping cross-border aid would be “a devastating blow to the millions of Syrian families who rely on this aid for clean water, food, health care and shelter.”
Thirteen countries voted in favor of an earlier German-Belgian draft, but Moscow and Beijing opposed the extension because they favor a more limited proposal.
European countries and the US want to maintain two crossing points on the Turkish border — at Bab Al-Salam, which leads to the Aleppo region, and Bab Al-Hawa, which serves the Idlib region.
The UN authorization allows the body to distribute aid to displaced Syrians without needing permission from Damascus.
Russia and China argue that the UN authorization violates Syria’s sovereignty, and that aid can increasingly be channeled through Syrian authorities.
The latest proposal by Russia, which claims to want continued aid for the insurgent Idlib region, would have kept only the Bab Al-Hawa access point open, and for one year.
Moscow claims that more than 85 percent of current aid goes through Bab Al-Hawa and that the Bab Al-Salam entry point can therefore be closed.
Western countries oppose it, with the US having described two entry points as “a red line.”
In January, Moscow, Syria’s closest ally, succeeded in having the crossing points reduced from four to two and in limiting the authorization to six months instead of a year.
According to Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, keeping only one border crossing open would cut off 1.3 million people living north of Aleppo from humanitarian aid.
Another diplomat noted that “if the authorization is renewed a few days late, it is not the absolute end of the world. It suspends the convoys for a few days, it does not put them in danger.”
For the UN, keeping as many entry points open as possible is crucial, particularly given the risk of the coronavirus pandemic, which is spreading in the region.
In a report in June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a one-year extension of the aid to include the two current access points.
When asked Thursday if the UN would be satisfied with a single entry point into Syria, body spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We need more aid to go through the border. We do not need less to go through.”
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, called it a “dark day” for Syrian civilians and the UN.
He added it “defies logic or humanity to dismantle a system designed to bring life-saving aid to Syrians in the form of food, health supplies, vaccines, and now critical COVID-19 provisions.”