The Lebanese authorities should investigate allegations that security forces used excessive force to disperse residents protesting in Beirut over the lack of adequate public services, a waste management crisis, and corruption, Amnesty International said ahead of fresh demonstrations planned for today.
At least 343 people were treated for injuries and 59 more were hospitalized, according to the Red Cross, after protests on 22 and 23 August organized by the local “You Stink” civil society movement.
“Lebanese security officials responded to overwhelmingly peaceful protesters in downtown Beirut by shooting into the air with live rounds, firing rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and water cannons, and in some cases hurling stones and beating protesters with batons and rifles,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.
“Everyone in Lebanon has the right to peaceful assembly. Lebanese officials must uphold this right and send a clear message to security personnel that such attacks against peaceful protesters will not be tolerated. They must ensure prompt, independent investigations are conducted and that police and soldiers suspected of arbitrary or abusive force are brought to justice. The security forces must also refrain from using unnecessary or excessive force against peaceful demonstrators at today’s protest.”
Security force members should adhere to international standards on use of force by law enforcement officials. They should exhaust non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. If using force becomes unavoidable they should exercise restraint to ensure that their use of force is proportionate and minimizes harm.
Nohad Machnouk, the Lebanese Minister of Interior, has called for investigations into the use of force by Internal Security Force members (ISF) – the local police force – and the Lebanese army at the protests in downtown Beirut. He called for the immediate end to the use of live ammunition, and has promised that those who ordered the shooting or fired at protesters would be held accountable.
The Ministry of Justice also has an investigation underway led by Judge Sakr Sakr. On 28 August the Minister of Interior announced that he would receive the findings of both investigations early next week.
Amnesty International is calling for the investigations into the violence used against protesters to be independent, timely and transparent and to result in accountability for unlawful attacks against protesters.
The first protest organized by the “You Stink” movement took place on 21 July. Since then, the movement has been compiling photos and videos highlighting the government’s mismanagement of the waste crisis, including by dumping rubbish in the sea, rivers, and fields after the closure of one of the country’s main landfills. They have also conducted public actions such as dumping piles of rubbish in front of the home of the Minister of the Environment, Mohammed Machnouk.
Asaad Thebian, an organizer with the “You Stink” movement, told Amnesty International that on 19 August security officials used water cannons to disperse a small number of peaceful protesters in downtown Beirut, near the Grand Serail, the seat of government. He described how when he attempted to approach the Grand Serail, which was in a cordoned off area, he was beaten by security officials.
“I was running toward the Grand Serail. I didn’t use any violence but they were very violent when they grabbed me. They hit me in the face with a rifle butt. There were more than 10 [security officials] around me. One was kicking me, another was tying my hands behind my back in an ugly way. I was bleeding from my ear and forehead…They [held me for half an hour] and then let me go… They gave me water to clean my face but no medical assistance,” he said.
On 22 August at a second protest in Riad al-Solh, in downtown Beirut, protesters tried to enter al-Nijmeh square, where Parliament is located, and to approach the Grand Serail again, both of which were barricaded by security forces.
Assad Thebian and George Ghali, from the Lebanese human rights NGO Alef, told Amnesty International that on 22 August the protest was calm until members of the ISF began using water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters. When protesters sought to enter al-Nijmeh square, the Lebanese Army began firing live rounds into the air, and at around the same time members of the ISF began shooting rubber bullets at protesters in Riad al-Solh. Tear gas and water cannons were also used.
George Ghali and Assad Thebian said that a small number of protesters threw plastic bottles and rocks at ISF vehicles and in some cases the security force members themselves.
Assad Thebian said that after some protesters threw rocks at the security members they threw the rocks back at them. One of the rocks struck him in the head and he had to get three stitches.
Dozens of injuries among protesters were reported from rubber bullets, batons and tear gas. At least 10 protesters were directly hit with rubber bullets.
“The way they were using tear gas was very harmful,” said Assad Thebian who described security forces firing canisters into fleeing crowds. “One person hit with a rubber bullet in the head is still hospitalized.”
On 23 August security forces again shot live rounds into the air, and used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against protesters when the “You Stink” protest was infiltrated by a minority group of protesters armed with, fireworks, stones, sticks and in some cases Molotov cocktails.
“You Stink” organizers clashed with this group of protesters when they refused organizer requests that they stop using violence. Organizers decided to end the protest around 9:30 pm after violence escalated. However protesters remained behind and some vandalized police and local property until the army dispersed the protest just after midnight.
The ISF announced that 99 of their members had been injured in the protests, 30 of them seriously.
“Even when responding to violence, security forces should never recklessly fire rubber bullets and other projectiles into crowds of protesters. They must respond proportionately and firearms must not be used except in self-defence or to defend others against imminent risk of death or serious injury,” said Lama Fakih.
“The use of violence by some protesters does not absolve the security forces from blame over targeting of the overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement more broadly.”
Protests against the government’s failure to tackle a waste management crisis began after 17 July when the government stopped using one of the country’s main landfills in the town of al-Naameh, south of Beirut. The landfill, opened in 1998, was initially scheduled to close in 2004, but the absence of a ready alternative kept it in use. Despite its long anticipated closure date, government officials failed to identify an alternative waste management plan when the landfill closed.
Since July protests have taken place across the country, including in Beirut and Tripoli, Amchit and Batroun, in northern Lebanon, in the Chouff region, in the Akkar region, in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley.
Amongst their demands, the “You Stink” movement is calling for security force members responsible for violence against protesters to be held accountable, for the resignation of the Minister of Environment, for the establishment of an environmentally sustainable waste management plan, and for parliamentary elections to take place. Parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place in June 2013 have been postponed until June 2017.