Human Rights Watch tackles Lebanese security forces for excessive action on protesters

By Akanimo Sampson

A global rights group, Human Rights Watch, is tackling the Lebanese security forces, claiming that they used excessive and at times lethal force against mostly peaceful protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, causing hundreds of injuries.

Ambulance is seen the day after a massive explosion at the port on August 5, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. According to the Lebanese Red Cross, at the moment over 100 people died in the explosion and over 4,000 were injured in explosion at Beirut Port. Officials said a waterfront warehouse storing explosive materials, reportedly 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, was the cause of the blast. (Photo by Houssam Hariri/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

‘’Security forces fired live ammunition, metal pellets, and kinetic impact projectiles such as rubber balls, including at health workers, and police deployed excessive quantities of tear gas, including at first aid stations’’, the rights group says.

According to it, several teargas cartridges were fired directly at protesters, striking some in the head and neck. Security forces also threw stones at protesters and beat them, pointing out, ‘’the forces involved included the Parliament Police, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and unidentified forces in civilian clothing.’

Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, Michael Page, says “instead of lending a helping hand to fellow Beirutis still digging themselves out of the explosion debris, Lebanon’s security apparatus made a fist and pummeled protesters with shocking amounts of violence.

“Such unlawful and excessive force against mostly peaceful protesters shows the callous disregard of the authorities for their own people.”

Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in downtown Beirut on August 8 to express their outrage over the government and political elites’ incompetence and corruption.

These political elites are widely blamed for the August 4 blast at Beirut’s port, which killed 180 people, injured more than 6,000, and caused extensive damage across the city.

Human Rights Watch researchers monitored the protests and interviewed 25 people in Beirut between August 8 and August 18, including doctors and other health workers, journalists, and lawyers.

The group it also photographed and collected fired munitions from the protest site and analyzed photographs and videos of security forces using excessive force that were sent directly to researchers or collected from social media platforms.

Its researchers identified the weapons allegedly used by security forces, and reviewed medical reports of injured protesters, and submitted questions about security forces’ conduct to the army on August 18 and the ISF on August 19, but as of August 25, has not received a reply.

Continuing, it said it contacted Parliament Police on August 19, briefly summarised the findings, and asked for comment. An official, who refused to give his name, said “interview over” and hung up.

Some protesters interviewed had been injured by live ammunition, rubber balls, metal pellets fired from shotguns, or direct fire from teargas cartridges. Others were hit by members of the security forces with bare hands, sticks, and other weapons.

 The Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency Relief Corps announced that 728 people were injured during the August 8 protest and at least 153 of them were taken to hospitals for treatment.

Security forces should immediately end the use of shotgun-fired metal pellets and other indiscriminate area-fire ammunition, and the public prosecutor should open an independent investigation into the abuses and make the results public, Human Rights Watch said.

International donors to Lebanese security forces should investigate whether their support is going to abusive units, and if so, halt it immediately.

Most demonstrators were peaceful, but some threw rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails at security forces. Some also looted and burned public and private property. Protesters briefly occupied the Foreign Economy, Environment, and Energy Ministries, and the Association of Banks.

The ISF announced that one of its members died while trying to save people trapped at the Le Grey Hotel and said 70 of its members had been injured. The army stated that 105 of its soldiers had been injured, including two in critical condition.

The use of violence by some protesters does not justify the excessive and at times unprovoked use of force by security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

The ISF’s Riot Police and Parliament Police wear the same dark blue camouflage uniforms with anti-riot gear and are impossible to distinguish. Parliament Police claimed that their duties are limited to protecting the parliament building and that parliament’s perimeter is secured by the ISF and Lebanese army.

However, high-level government and security officials told Human Rights Watch that Parliament Police were responsible for serious abuses against demonstrators outside the parliament compound in December 2019.

The rights group said it documented, from multiple sources, the use of live ammunition at or toward protesters on four separate occasions on August 8. In one case, two soldiers fired their assault rifles in the direction of protesters. The identities and affiliations of the shooters in the other three cases are unknown.

In one of these three cases, security forces fired live ammunition at protesters attempting to evacuate an injured man. Human Rights Watch spoke with one protester from another incident who said he was injured in his thigh near Le Grey Hotel by a live round and reviewed his medical records, showing bullet fragments in his thigh. In two instances, the shooters were in the parliament compound surrounded by uniformed members of the army and police who did nothing to stop them.

Metal pellets fired by shotguns were the main cause of many serious injuries on August 8, including injuries to protesters’ eyes and vital organs. Human Rights Watch had not previously documented the Lebanese security forces’ use of metal pellets.

Given their inherently inaccurate nature, indiscriminate impact, and evidence of the serious injuries they have caused, the use of shotguns firing multiple pellets – rubber or metal – against demonstrators at any range should cease immediately, Human Rights Watch said.

The use of live ammunition when there is no imminent threat to life or imminent risk of serious injury, and the use of shotguns that scatter multiple projectiles indiscriminately over a wide area with the potential to harm anyone in their path, both violate international human rights standards governing law enforcement officials’ use of force.

In a statement on August 9, the Lebanese army said that “none of the soldiers opened fire with live ammunition toward protesters in downtown Beirut.” The ISF denied firing “live ammunition” and rubber bullets at protesters, and Parliament Police denied shooting at protesters.

Police dressed in anti-riot gear and members of the army also beat and kicked protesters, doctors, journalists, and a Human Rights Watch researcher, who was hit in the mouth.

Ghida Frangieh, president of Legal Agenda, a legal advocacy group, and member of the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, an ad hoc group of pro bono lawyers, said that security forces arrested at least 20 protesters on suspicion of rioting and drug use. Frangieh said the security forces “illegally subjected” those arrested to drug tests at the ISF’s El-Helou Barracks, violating their rights to privacy and health.

Eighteen protesters were released after 24 hours, while 2 remain detained on charges unrelated to the protests, Frangieh said. Frangieh added that the Lawyers’ Committee submitted twelve criminal complaints to the public prosecution on August 24 on behalf of injured protesters against anyone who is found to have ordered the use of or used live ammunition, including civilians and security forces affiliated with the army, ISF, and Parliament Police.

Diala Chehade, a lawyer and human rights advocate, filed a criminal complaint against the Parliament Police on August 19 on behalf of a protester who was shot with a rubber bullet and lost his left eye.

A group of doctors known as the “White Shirts,” who in October had protested the impact of corruption and the economic crisis on access to quality health care, said on August 13 that the Health Ministry said it would not pay the expenses of hospitals that treated protesters injured in the August 8 protests. After pressure from doctors and hospitals, the Health Ministry apparently rescinded the decision.

The Justice Minister had asked the Chief Public Prosecutor to open an investigation into the events of August 8. As of August 25, the prosecutor had not yet publicly announced that he was doing so.

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Lebanon is a party.

International donors such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France have sold or given given billions of dollars in arms, equipment, and training to Lebanon’s security forces, including the Lebanese army and the ISF.

Donors should review these programs and ensure that they are not providing weapons, equipment, or training to any forces involved in serious abuses against protesters, Human Rights Watch said. They should also use their leverage to press for credible investigations into the abuses and for those responsible to be held to account.

On August 5, Lebanon’s government declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut, giving sweeping powers to the army and placing all security forces under the army’s command. The state of emergency was twice extended, and is set to expire on September 18.
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“Lebanese authorities can’t beat the smoldering grievances out of their citizens and think that they will escape accountability,” Page said. “To send a strong message that this type of abuse will no longer be tolerated, those responsible for beating and firing live ammunition and metal pellets on peaceful protesters need to be held to account.”

International standards stipulate that security forces should use the minimum necessary force at all times. In dispersing violent assemblies, firearms may only be used when other less-harmful means are not practicable but must still be used to the minimum extent necessary. Law enforcement officers may only intentionally make lethal use of firearms when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. Live ammunition should not be used unless required to protect life or prevent serious injury. 

Human Rights Watch documented the use of live ammunition at or in the direction of protesters on three separate occasions on August 8, and the firing of live ammunition in the direction of protesters, but at a high angle, on another occasion. No protesters or bystanders are known to have died in these incidents, but at least one was injured by a bullet from a pistol.

Throughout the afternoon of August 8, Human Rights Watch researchers observed large protests around the Annahar Building in downtown Beirut, with protesters charging the areas around the parliament building, pulling down barricades, setting fire to material, and at one point using a vehicle to block the road. Protesters threw debris at security forces, who responded with a high volume of teargas. As the protests continued, security forces escalated their response to include shotgun-fired metal pellets and live ammunition.

One protester, Omar, who like others asked that his last name not be used for his protection, said that at about 7:30 p.m., he was peacefully demonstrating near the Le Grey Building and an adjacent alley on the “front lines” of the protests. He heard gunfire and saw two people firing at protesters. One, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, fired a handgun at Omar, who hid behind a wall.

During a lull in the gunfire, Omar said, he left his hiding place and the same person shot at him from a distance of less than 10 meters, striking Omar in the upper left thigh. “When he first shot, I didn’t feel it,” he said. “I looked down and saw that my leg was bleeding. I wanted to retreat, but I took two steps and fell over.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed Omar’s medical records from August 8, including X-rays, which showed three large bullet fragments and several smaller fragments in his left leg. “Fortunately, it didn’t hit my bone”, he said. “It was close to an artery, but it narrowly missed it.”

n another incident, around 6:45 p.m., security forces perched near a wall inside the compound belonging to the Parliament Police, responding to persistent rock-throwing, fired multiple live rounds at protesters in an alleyway, where a Virgin Megastore was previously located.

One protester in the alley, “Joe,” another protester whose name is not being used for his protection, said he saw three security force members with shields, helmets, body armor, and dark colored uniforms repeatedly firing un-aimed and aimed shots at protesters with pump-action shotguns.

He said he peered around the corner and a shot narrowly missed his head, striking the wall behind him at around head level. A Human Rights Watch researcher later visited the site and identified fragments of a metal-jacketed projectile and spall embedded in the wall about two meters from the ground. The metal fragments in the wall had a bright shine, indicating the impact was recent. 

Joe said he fled the area, but seconds later, at approximately 6:48 p.m., security forces fired at least 2 additional rounds at three men as they tried to carry an injured protester to safety. Human Rights Watch verified a video of the incident that was posted on Facebook on August 8 and spoke with the man who took the video.

The video shows three men in the alleyway in the recessed entrance to an underground parking lot hoisting a man up and carrying him towards Martyrs’ Square as gunfire is heard and projectiles hit the wall near them.