On Sunday, December 15, the Lebanese Caretaker Interior Minister Raya Al-Hassan warned against “infiltrators” seeking to use protests to spark “confrontations” and asked peaceful protesters to leave the area “for their own protection.” She announced an internal “rapid and transparent” investigation into Saturday’s violence.
“While the caretaker minister of interior has announced an internal investigation, only an independent criminal investigation by the Public Prosecution can deter future excessive use of force. Otherwise protesters will continue to be unsafe on the streets,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Research.
“Since the beginning of the protests almost two months ago, security forces have resorted to unnecessary and excessive force against peaceful protesters on a number of occasions. But the unprovoked crackdown we witnessed on Saturday is by far the most virulent we have seen so far.”
Low-level clashes between protesters and security forces took place on the following two evenings, with police using tear gas in response to stone-throwing, water bottles and shooting fireworks by the protesters.
Amnesty International staff observed the protests on the ground, spoke to seven eyewitnesses, including two who were wounded, and reviewed video footage and images of tear gas being used to disperse demonstrators.
“Tear gas canisters were falling one after the other”
On Saturday, December 14, 2019 around 6pm, peaceful protesters – including men, women, elderly people and children – gathered outside the parliament in the capital, Beirut. Protesters positioned towards the front consistently told Amnesty International that at around 7pm without any provocation, riot police members barged through the crowd of peaceful protesters in large numbers, alongside men in civilian clothes armed with batons, and started chasing and beating protesters. Within minutes, they began firing extensive rounds of tear gas canisters. Dozens of people were injured as a result of the beatings and the tear gas inhalation.
Having dispersed, protesters were chased almost two kilometers further along the highway by police. One protester, Sara, told the organization: “The tear gas was being shot one after the next. At first, four [canisters] at a time, and then they became like fireworks as when we were kids. People were throwing up, others saying drink water, smell onions, vinegar; no one knew what was happening.”
Another activist described to Amnesty International how he woke up the next day still coughing because of the tear gas He said: “The amount of tear gas was ridiculous. It was like someone shooting with a machine gun. Tear gas canisters were falling one after the other.”
According to Amnesty International’s weapons expert, images of tear gas canisters found on Saturday were 56mm CM4 tear gas grenades manufactured by the French company SAE Alsetex in October 2007.
The Lebanese Red Cross told Amnesty they treated 33 cases in the field and transported 10 injured people to hospitals on Saturday night. Cases treated in the field included short breath, vomiting and coughing due to exposure to tear gas. The Lebanese Civil Defense said it had treated 72 people for injuries at the scene and taken 20 others to hospital.
Amnesty International interviewed one of the emergency doctors on call at a nearby hospital attending to injured protesters. He said that approximately 25 injured protesters came in that Saturday night. The types of injuries described were mainly the result of beatings, and included bruises, broken teeth, and cuts that required stitches. One young woman had been beaten and had blood inside her lungs which caused bruises and concussion.
Three people arrived at the emergency room without any identification. According to the doctor: “They said the police took their identification papers and then they beat them up, they were beaten all around their bodies leaving them swollen from head to toe.”
Parliamentary police also dragged a number of protesters inside the square behind the barriers and subjected them to beatings, insults and threats. One injured protester described to Amnesty International how he was protecting other protesters from beatings, when he was taken by riot police behind the barriers. They tied his hands behind his back and beat him for a period of around 20 minutes until he couldn’t stand up. He said “they were beating me there behind the barriers. It’s like Guantanamo inside the Nejmeh Square.”
“It is essential that any investigation into this incident, and any other incident that pertains to human rights violations committed by any of the security forces, is conducted in an independent manner and lead to accountability Peaceful protesters have a right to seek justice and redress for what they suffered through this weekend, and the only way they would be able to do so is before an independent court,” said Lynn Maalouf.
Protests in Lebanon have rocked the country since October 17. Protesters are demanding a complete overhaul of a political class they accuse of being incompetent and corrupt. They have called on the authorities to deal with a stagnant economy, rising prices, high unemployment, dire public services and rampant and systemic corruption.
The protests across Lebanon have been overwhelmingly peaceful and the response from army and security forces has been largely restrained. However, Amnesty International has documented incidents of unlawful and excessive use of force, including in one incident, the use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters. On another occasion an army personnel who had shot into the air, subsequently shot and killed a peaceful protester and father of three. Amnesty International has documented several other human rights violations by the Lebanese authorities including a failure to protect peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and torture and ill-treatment.
The events of Saturday resembled the first few days of the protests, when security forces used excessive force to disperse protesters firing huge amounts of tear gas into crowds and chasing protesters down streets and alleys at gunpoint and beating them.