Lebanon’s Internal Security Force’s riot police have used excessive and unnecessary force against protesters in downtown Beirut on October 18, 2019, firing tear gas at thousands of largely peaceful protesters, including children, in downtown Beirut, said the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report on October 21.
The army cleared the areas, sometimes using excessive force, as riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at fleeing protesters, HRW reported.
“Instead of protecting protesters demanding reform, Lebanese security forces beat and arrested them, causing far more havoc than the protesters,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“This should be a wake-up call to the Lebanese government that they can’t abuse the patience of their long-suffering citizens forever,” she added.
The anti-government demonstrations, which began on the evening of October 17, were prompted by the government’s announcement of new taxes, including on the messaging application WhatsApp, which it revoked hours later due to popular outrage.
However, the countrywide protests devolved into expressions of anger against the entire political establishment, whom they blame for the country’s dire economic situation.
Thousands of protesters gathered across Beirut decrying what they called the government’s corruption and economic mismanagement and calling for its resignation. Similar protests took place in cities across the country, including Tripoli, Jbeil, Baalback, Saida, Sour, and Nabatieh.
Human Rights Watch observed the protests in Beirut, which took place downtown, in Hamra, and the main highway to the airport. During the day, thousands of people who appeared to be from a variety of sects, socioeconomic classes, and ages gathered in downtown Beirut, chanting against corruption and seeking the formation of a new government.
Human Rights Watch spoke with a protester who was seriously injured by a rubber bullet. The 32-year-old musician, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, said that he and other demonstrators were playing music in Riad al-Solh, near the Grand Serail, when they saw the tear gas smoke. He was trapped between riot police and the tear gas, with nowhere to run. He said he saw a riot police officer point at him and then another officer fired a rubber bullet directly at him.
“Their [riot police]intention was to hurt us, not just to disperse us. They shot directly at my face, not at my legs or in the air,” he told Human Rights Watch.
The musician said he covered his face with his hands and realized one of his fingers was hanging off. He got to a hospital where he said a doctor warned he may lose his finger. He said he saw many injured in the hospital, including one person shot in the face by a rubber bullet.
It is unclear how many protesters were injured or arrested on October 18, said HRW.
The Internal Security Forces announced the arrest of 70 individuals, but activists estimate that the total is close to 300. Other activists are reporting that many of those arrested were released bearing marks of abuse.
HRW demanded the Lebanese authorities should respond to the demonstrations in a proportional and lawful manner. They should release anyone arrested solely for peacefully exercising their right to free expression and assembly.
The government should initiate an independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of the security forces and compensate victims of unlawful force by the security forces, said the rights group.
Under United Nations basic principles, law enforcement officials may only use force “when strictly necessary.” Should they use force, they must exercise restraint and ensure any use of force is proportionate. If security forces cause serious injuries, there should be an independent investigation leading to prosecutions, if the use of force is found to be unlawful.
“There is no excuse for beating and arresting peaceful protesters,” Whitson said. “The Lebanese authorities can’t beat the grievances out of their citizens and think these problems will go away.” (Source: HRW)