Beirut emergency law sparks fears of army crackdown

Lebanese army soldiers are deployed during a protest in the aftermath of the deadly explosion in Beirut. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Beirut emergency law sparks fears of army crackdown

  • In its first meeting since the blast, Lebanon’s parliament on Thursday backed legislation allowing the army to ban gatherings deemed threats to national security
  • Human rights groups warned that the emergency law will give the Lebanese military extensive powers to quell protests and leave activists at the mercy of military courts

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament has approved a two-week state of emergency in Beirut that gives sweeping powers to the army, prompting warnings of a crackdown on protests in the city.

The green light for the tough new measures comes 10 days after a deadly explosion in the capital killed more than 170 people, wounded 6,500 others and forced the Cabinet to step down.

In its first meeting since the blast, Lebanon’s parliament on Thursday backed legislation allowing the army to ban gatherings deemed threats to national security and expanding the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.

Human rights groups warned that the emergency law will give the Lebanese military extensive powers to quell protests and leave activists at the mercy of military courts.

The Lebanese parliament met in Beirut’s Unesco Palace complex after its headquarters were heavily damaged in the explosion.

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A decree imposing a state of emergency was issued by Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government the day after the explosion.

The government resigned five days later amid angry protests demanding “revenge” for the blast, which has been widely blamed on negligence by the authorities.

Sources told Arab News that the Lebanese judiciary is waiting on a report by French experts who joined rescue efforts and investigated the site of the explosion to determine its causes.

The Lebanese judiciary concluded that “according to investigations with officials under arrest and witnesses, the incident was due to negligence that allowed the storing of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the port for seven years without taking precautionary measures.”

A source said that “the investigator in charge of the case has listened to the testimony of security officials.”

Investigators will also interview former public works ministers Ghazi Aridi, Ghazi Zaiter and Youssef Fenianos along with former justice and finance ministers, including Salim Jreissati and Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi.

Meanwhile, complications surround the appointment of a judicial investigator.

Arab News has been told that the Higher Judicial Council considered appointing judge Tareq Al-Bitar, who was proposed by the caretaker justice minister. However, Al-Bitar declined the role.

Sources said that “Al-Bitar later was pressured by two Free Patriotic Movement ministers to retrieve his resignation, which led to the Higher Judicial Council expressing reservations over his nomination.”

Eight MPs — Nadim Gemayel, Paula Yacoubian, Sami Gemayel, Elias Hankach, Michel Moawad, Neemat Frem, Henry Helou, and Marwan Hmadeh — have resigned following the explosion. The parliament session was boycotted by members of the Lebanese Forces bloc.

Protesters gathered near the Unesco Palace during the parliamentary session, chanting slogans and waving Lebanese flags.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri accused MPs who resigned of neglecting their duties while “the country is dying right in front of us.”

He called for the prompt formation of a new government “with a primary goal of fighting corruption and restoring Lebanese unity.”

The parliamentary session lasted for only 40 minutes but brought divisions between those calling for a parliamentary investigative committee and others demanding an international inquiry.

MP Usama Saad warned that the state of emergency will hinder public freedom.

“At this time we want the army and security forces to be a support to the people rather than being coercive agencies,” he said.

The White Shirts medical group, which treats people injured during protests, claimed that security forces had used lethal “shredded” bullets — an explosive projectile that causes massive internal injuries — against protesters in recent days.

The volunteer group held a press conference to show X-rays detailing shocking injuries among protesters taken to hospital.

Former health minister Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh was among the first to warn on Twitter against use of the bullets.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered in Martyrs’ Square to help remove rubble and broken glass from houses, office blocks and shops throughout the devastated city.

More than 180 aircraft had carried emergency aid to Lebanon by Thursday. The relief operation is being coordinated by the Lebanese army, which is storing and distributing material including food, tents and medical supplies.

After arriving in Beirut on Thursday, David Hale, US state undersecretary for political affairs, said in a statement: “Economic and fiscal reforms are needed, and an end to dysfunctional governments and empty promises.

“All Lebanese want to see a Lebanon guided by the Lebanese people that fulfills their ambitions and needs, not those of others.

“The US is ready to support a Lebanese government that reflects and responds to the will of the people, and genuinely commits and acts for real change."

Hale said that the FBI will join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese "in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion and to work with Lebanon in this regard.”

Florence Parly, France’s armed forces minister, also arrived in the capital, while Mohammad Jawad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, is due to arrive on Friday.


Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

Updated 40 min 54 sec ago

Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

  • UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast
  • Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week
BEIRUT: Lebanon has retrieved the bodies of four people including a child after they tried to flee the crisis-hit country by sea on an overloaded dinghy, the civil defense said Monday.
A week ago, UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast.
Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week, during which time several passengers had died or jumped overboard to find help.
The bodies are presumed to be from the same ill-fated crossing.
Since Friday, “we have retrieved four bodies — belonging to two Lebanese, one of whom was a child, a young Indian man and a Syrian man,” Samir Yazbek, the head of the civil defense’s sea rescue unit, told AFP.
The bodies were found in four separate locations off the north and south coasts of the country, and the search was ongoing, he added.
The UN refugee agency said last week that 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three people of other nationalities had been rescued from the boat.
It is unclear how many men, women and children originally clambered aboard the dinghy, and therefore how many are still missing.
On Saturday, the navy said it would step up its searches within and outside Lebanon’s territorial waters to find any other victims.
Relatives of those who went missing from the impoverished north Lebanese city of Tripoli say the people smuggler involved in the crossing has dropped off the radar since the tragedy.
They have filed three legal complaints against the man, who they say is a well-known figure in the community.
A military source on Saturday said a person acting as an intermediary between passengers and the boat owner had been arrested.
In recent weeks, dozens of Lebanese and Syrians have tried to make the perilous sea journey from Lebanon to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, authorities on both sides say.
The Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, lies just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.
Lebanon is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades, compounded since February by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It is also reeling from a monster blast at Beirut’s port last month that killed more than 190 people, ravaged large parts of the capital and reignited public anger against the political class.