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21st October 2019, 15:04:36 UTC

Lebanon security forces used excessive force to disperse an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in downtown Beirut, including by firing huge amounts of tear gas into crowds, chasing protesters down streets and alleys at gunpoint and beating them, Amnesty International said today.

Protesters started assembling in multiple towns and cities across Lebanon on the evening of 17 October, following a cabinet announcement of new tax measures. Throughout the day on 18 October thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut, in Tripoli, Zouk Mikhael, Tyre, and other areas accusing the political leadership of corruption and calling for social and economic reforms.

On 18 October in downtown Beirut, at 8pm, shortly after the speech of Prime Minister Hariri, security forces used excessive force to disperse the overwhelmingly peaceful protests and by 11.30pm, they had cleared the square of all protesters.

“We call on the Lebanese authorities to respect the right of protesters to freedom of peaceful assembly and investigate the excessive use of tear gas as well as the beatings and harassment at gunpoint of protesters that took place last night. Promises by government officials to address protesters’ grievances ring terribly hollow and deceitful when security forces are given free rein to prevent the Lebanese people from voicing their anger in what was until then a largely peaceful manner,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

“Isolated incidents of property damage do not warrant such excessive use of tear gas against an overwhelmingly peaceful protest; and nothing can justify beating protesters. The intention was clearly to prevent protesters gathering – in a clear violation of the right to peaceful assembly.”

Amnesty International staff were present to monitor the protests in downtown Beirut and observed the protests going on in other parts of the country. The organization interviewed 21 witnesses and a human rights lawyer, as well as reviewed video footage of the dispersal.

At around 8pm in downtown Beirut, riot police fired excessive amounts of tear gas in the middle of overwhelmingly peaceful crowds who had gathered over the day.

Researchers spoke to six protesters who said that they had seen security forces start to advance on protesters leading to a scuffle near the security barrier. In response, riot police fired into the air and subsequently shot tear gas into the crowds. Amnesty International staff observed how the security forces continued to fire significant amounts of tear gas over the following hours, leading to an extremely high density of tear gas across areas of downtown Beirut.

One protester, Maryam Majdoline Lahham who was resting with a group of friends in a protest tent at around 10pm, told Amnesty that they suddenly saw crowds of protesters running towards them, followed by security forces: “When they got to us, they hit us with stones and fired more tear gas bombs into the tents. Everybody started shouting, coughing, trying to run in all directions but there was nowhere to go… People started fainting, I saw a man carrying a 60-year-old woman who had passed out from the gas.”

Hospital officials announced that at least 64 patients had been admitted that evening due to tear gas inhalation.

Another protester told Amnesty: “Around 10pm, teargas clouded the whole area, we couldn’t breathe anymore, and people started fainting. Around 10.30pm, army vehicles advanced into Riad El Solh to evacuate the area. Some of us retreated into Mar Mkhayel and others toward Annahar building. Army forces followed us and they started hitting and arresting whoever they laid hands on. We were all peaceful protesters. They were hitting people on their heads and bodies with their hands, rifles and batons.”

Security officers chased peaceful protesters who had fled the scene into the side streets, beating them with batons and arresting some. Daily Star reporter Timour Azhari captured on video military officers beating and kicking a man who was lying helpless on the ground. The man had been riding his motorcycle on the Ring road when the military officers had stopped him.

Another protester told Amnesty International that she had gathered with a group of protesters around 10pm to rest in Saifi Village after the protest had been dispersed with tear gas. She told Amnesty International:

“As we were sitting there peacefully, army forces attacked us. They terrorized us by pointing their rifles in our faces and asking us to leave the area immediately. I felt they were about to shoot us and we heard live shots in the background as we were running. They violently attacked at least two people and one of them was hit on his head and was bleeding. I took a video of what happened, and one soldier saw me and threatened to hurt me.”

The Internal Security Forces said on their Facebook page that they had arrested at least 70 people for “acts of vandalism and looting in downtown Beirut.” While Amnesty International observers witnessed some phonebooths with broken glass and broken parking meters, they could also confirm that the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful from start to finish [or until the security forces intervened].

Amnesty International spoke to Ghida Frangie, a human rights lawyer who confirmed that a number of detainees had been ill-treated and beaten by security forces at the point of their arrest and while they were being taken to the police station.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Lebanon is a party, the authorities are obligated to respect freedom of assembly. International standards dictate that security forces can only use force when strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and must ensure such force is proportionate..

“With so many people demonstrating in the streets across the country, and more protests expected in the coming days, the priority of the authorities must be to reduce tensions and allow all who wish to peacefully express to do so safely and without fear of reprisal,” said Lynn Maalouf.

“The authorities must also signal their commitment to respecting peaceful protest by immediately and effectively investigating all report arbitrary and abusive force against protesters and allegations of ill-treatment of those arrested.”