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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Carrying banners demanding freedom of speech, a dozen of Lebanese protesters symbolically tied their hands with rope in front of Beirut’s Justice Palace on Wednesday morning to protest a recent crackdown on anyone deemed to insult the president on social media.
“We heard that President Michel Aoun asked the general prosecutor to indict anyone who slanders him. As we’ve all done it, we came here directly to say, ‘here you are, we are yours’," protester Nawal Meouchi told The National.
“Instead of going after the people who are corrupt in our country, they decided to go after us,” said Rita, another protester. “They can’t take our freedom of speech away from us.”
Others carried banners that read “You can imprison a revolutionary, but you cannot imprison the revolution,” and “freedom remains our priority.”
On Monday, the state-run National News Agency reported that state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat assigned the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) central criminal investigations department to find the identity of people who had published posts and pictures insulting the president and to prosecute them for slander and defamation.
Lebanese protesters return to the streets
Lebanon’s worst-ever economic crisis boiled over late 2019, pushing hundreds of thousands to the street in what they have dubbed the “October revolution.”
Protestors hurled insults at Lebanon’s political leaders, including at the president, who they accuse of corruption and mismanagement and the chant Kilon Ya3ne Kilon (all of them means all of them) was common at many protests.
Numbers dwindled after the formation of the new government in January amid political pressure – including from President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement – and the coronavirus pandemic. But demonstrations picked up against last week as the local currency, which has lost around 70 per cent of its value at exchange shops, continued to tumble.
Officially pegged to the US dollar at 1,507 pounds, on Wednesday local media reported exchange shops selling dollars at 3,910 pounds.
Paula Yacoubian, the only Lebanese MP representing civil society and not a traditional political party, voiced her anger at the judiciary’s decision to pursue insults against the president, tweeting on Wednesday that “a state incapable of stopping pain has decided to ban screaming!... Lebanon will not become a police state.”
Lebanese law criminalises insults against the president with up to two years in prison, but for years it has only been occasionally used. However, under Mr Aoun, authorities have been increasingly resorting to such laws to stifle dissent, Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National.
“Based on numbers provided by the [ISF’s] cybercrime bureau, we saw a 325 per cent increase between 2015 [one year before Mr Aoun became president] and 2018 in the use of these laws,” she said.
Mrs Majzoub said that such practices are incompatible with international treaties signed by Lebanon, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
“What’s more worrying is that the public prosecutor said he would investigate anyone insulting the president, which is slightly different from the president saying that he can personally file a lawsuit against someone,” she added.
“This decision – in the wake of a spate of recent prosecutions targeting activists and journalists peacefully expressing their opinions – has shattered any remaining pretence that Lebanese authorities care about or respect the right to free speech,” she said.
Updated: June 17, 2020 09:31 PM
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