Lebanon: New government must immediately rein in security forces after weekend of violence

  • At least 409 protesters injured in clashes between protesters and security forces in Beirut on 18 and 19 January.
  • Security forces shoot-to-harm use of force left protesters with serious injuries in the head, face, chin and mouth. At least three protesters were hit directly in the eye with rubber bullets.
  • Two female protesters told the organization that policemen threatened them with rape.

The Internal Security Forces (ISF)’s unlawful use of rubber bullets left hundreds of protesters injured, some with serious injuries, in one of the most violent weekends since Lebanon’s protests began, Amnesty International said today. With protests likely to continue over the next weeks, Lebanon’s newly formed government must, as a matter of urgency, prioritize reining in security forces and investigate the unlawful and excessive use of force, beatings, rape threats and arbitrary arrests of protesters to deter re-occurrence.

Amnesty International interviewed 13 eyewitnesses, including two doctors, and reviewed dozens of images and videos corroborating the testimonies and findings, as well as reviewed official statements related to these events.

The evidence collected shows that ISF riot police unlawfully used rubber bullets at close range, in addition to water cannon, tear gas and baton beatings while seeking to disperse protesters in Beirut on Saturday and Sunday. Police arbitrarily arrested dozens of protesters and at least two women confirmed to Amnesty International that policemen had threatened them with rape. The Lebanese Red Cross announced that at least 409 protesters were injured over the two nights as the riot police clashed with protesters.

“The level of police violence we documented on Saturday and Sunday was unprecedented and indicated a clear escalation on behalf of the authorities. During the two most violent nights since Lebanon’s protests began almost 100 days ago, security forces aimed rubber bullets at protesters’ upper bodies and fired tear gas and water cannon at close range all of which will cause certain harm to protesters,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Regional Director at Amnesty International.

“The new minister of interior must immediately rein in the ISF and order them to comply with international standards and respect the right to assembly. Acts of violence by a minority of protesters does not justify a violent dispersal but should have been dealt with in a targeted manner. Judicial authorities now have a crucial role to investigate the events of the weekend to provide redress for the victims and send a strong signal that this violence will not be tolerated.”

Over the weekend, ISF Director General Emad Othman and the then caretaker Minister of Interior Raya Haffar al-Hassan claimed that the use of force was in response to acts of “violence and vandalism non-peaceful protesters” were conducting against ISF members and public and private properties. They said 142 soldiers were injured due to these acts on the night of 18 January, including seven officers and three serious injuries. During the protests on Saturday, Minister al-Hassan made a statement calling on “peaceful protesters” to leave the protest square to “avoid getting hurt.”

According to eye witnesses and videos posted online, a few dozen protesters threw stones, firecrackers, traffic signs and some street plants in the direction of the riot police, in the aim of crossing the barricades to reach a closer point to the parliament. However, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association has clarified, the fact that a minority of protesters engage in individual acts of violence does not render an entire protest unpeaceful or justify its forcible dispersal.

On 18 January the Lebanese Red Cross provided medical care to 140 protesters on the ground and reported that another 169 people had been taken to hospital with injuries including suffocation, serious wounds and broken limbs. The next day, the Red Cross reported a further 100 protesters injured.

Unlawful use of rubber bullets

Photos, videos, testimonies and medical records reviewed by Amnesty showed that riot police were often shooting directly into the crowd at chest-level and that many of the injuries of protesters were in the upper part of the body, specifically in the eyes, necks, chests, upper arms and stomachs. In some cases, police shot protesters at close range, indicating that they were shooting to harm.

Under international standards and guidelines on the use of force, rubber bullets may only be used as a targeted tool to stop individuals engaged in violence against persons since they can cause serious injury. In addition, with a view to minimizing injury they may, as a general rule, only be aimed at the lower part of the body and must never be used as a general tool to disperse a crowd.

Michel Razzouk, 47 years old, told Amnesty International how he had been shot at close range on the night of 18 January, before a group of riot police started beating him.

“I felt something that hit me that took my breath away. I felt I was pounded down by a ton of weight and didn’t realize what was happening. One guy had shot me straight in the stomach; he was about four to five meters away. I’m not sure the other policemen even realized that he had shot me, and they started beating me up. I felt paralyzed and couldn’t move; that’s when I realized something was wrong. They were telling me, ‘stand up, stand up’ but I couldn’t. They beat me for some 15mn before they realized that something was wrong.”

While he was pinned to the ground with the wound, an officer ordered that he be arrested and taken away. But a civil defense team stepped in and eventually managed to take Michel to the hospital. Amnesty International obtained footage of the rubber bullet being removed from Michel’s stomach with its casing intact, indicating that it had been fired at close range.

Another protester, Jean George Prince, was wounded by a rubber bullet on 18 January. He told Amnesty International that he was protesting peacefully, near Le Grey Hotel, when he was hit in the face by a rubber bullet. He had a complete laceration of his lower lip and received a reconstructive surgery.

“We were peaceful protesters, forming a line in front of the riot police. We weren’t moving towards them. They were only four or five meters away… I saw one of them shooting and pointing directly at the people. I saw a guy getting shot next to me. Then I took a shot in the face that pushed me to the back… There were three of us injured… I have more than 50 stitches inside and outside my mouth and on my chin after four hours of surgery,” he told the organization.

A female protester who did not want to be named told Amnesty International that she was participating in protests on 19 January near Nejmeh square when she saw a member of the riot police aiming directly at her from close range. As she was trying to escape, a rubber bullet tore her ear.

“I was standing there. No one else was beside me. There were no other protesters engaging in violence nor was there any immediate danger. I saw him [the soldier] come out from behind a wall. He looked at me in the eye and he pointed his gun at me… A rubber bullet passed right by my left ear. [It] tore my ear and I couldn’t hear with it… The left side of my face is swollen too.”

Amnesty International also interviewed three eyewitnesses who reported that riot police fired rubber bullets directly at them on Saturday night as they were running into Gemmayzeh street to escape the area.

A surgeon [name withheld upon request] who attended several surgeries of injured protesters at Hotel Dieu hospital explained that they had treated four cases of injuries with rubber bullets in the head, including one who lost eyesight permanently.

Arrests, beating and threats of rape

The Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters confirmed that security forces arrested at least 43 protesters on the night of 18 January and transferred to El Helou police station. Eleven were released later the same night while the rest were released the next morning. ISF kept their mobile phones, saying the measure followed a judicial order issued in that regard.

The Lawyers’ Committee stated on social media that protesters had been beaten during arrest, during transfer to the police station and inside El Helou police station. The police reportedly beat them with hands and batons, insulted them and threatened them with physical and sexual violence.

A video widely shared on social media shows the police hitting protesters as they exited ISF vehicles inside El Helou police station. The head of ISF promised to launch an investigation into this specific incident.

Amnesty International spoke to one female protester [name withheld upon request] who witnessed the arbitrary arrest of her friend on Saturday night on Pasteur street, in Beirut. When she asked the police officers where they were taking him, they used abusive language and threatened to arrest and rape her.

Shatha Hassanieh, who was arrested on Saturday night, told Amnesty International that she was in Saifi in central Beirut when riot police arrested her without charge at around 8:30pm, before they released her a few hours later at 12:30am.

Shatha explained: “While I was walking with the officer, others were approaching me in an aggressive manner to frighten me and they were threating to beat me. One of them said ‘they will rape you inside’. When we reached the vehicle, I saw them beating a number of arrested protesters.” She added: “At Helou Station, I saw them beat every detained protestor stepping out of the vehicle. They kept me in a separate room for half an hour. I could not see the other detainees, but I could hear them screaming.”

“Such alarming levels of violence by security forces, mainly the anti-riot police, must be immediately halted by way of a clear and transparent order, and those responsible for this pattern of violence need to be held accountable without delay and in a manner that guarantees effective redress for the victims. Failing a prompt, thorough, independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the violations this past weekend, what we saw this weekend will continue to occur and will inflame an already volatile political situation,” said Heba Morayef.

On 21 January, 2020, Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns over the increasing number of violent clashes in Lebanon in recent days and called on the authorities to conduct prompt, thorough, independent, transparent and impartial investigations into allegations of police violence.