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Lebanon releases protesters as rights groups slam security forces

Lebanon’s security forces have released most of the more than 100 anti-government protesters arrested after two nights of violent encounters between police and demonstrators in the capital, Beirut. While the months-long protest movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators clashed with security forces on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a committee of lawyers defending demonstrators saying 101…

Lebanon releases protesters as rights groups slam security forces

Lebanon’s security forces have released most of the more than 100 anti-government protesters arrested after two nights of violent encounters between police and demonstrators in the capital, Beirut.
While the months-long protest movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators clashed with security forces on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a committee of lawyers defending demonstrators saying 101 people had been arrested, including 56 on Wednesday, with five minors among them.
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The lawyers’ committee announced on Facebook on Thursday that “all those arrested have been released with the exception of seven foreigners”.
The detained foreigners – six Syrians and an Egyptian – will be brought before authorities, the committee added.
Protesters gathered again in Beirut on Thursday evening in front of the Central Bank and interior ministry, where several hundred demonstrators denounced police use of force and outgoing Minister of the Interior Raya al-Hassan. 
Lebanese security forces announced that 59 people were arrested on suspicion of vandalism and assault on Tuesday when protesters angered by stringent informal capital controls attacked banks in central Beirut.
“Under popular pressure, the detained have been released two days after a hysterical crackdown,” Nizar Saghieh, who heads the Legal Agenda non-governmental organisation, wrote on Twitter.
‘Vicious’ riot police
International human rights organisations have criticised the conduct of security forces, with Amnesty International denouncing what it said were “arbitrary arrests”. 
“What we have witnessed in the past couple of days is an alarming attack on freedom of assembly and expression,” said the group’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf.
“Acts by a minority of protesters who vandalised banks or threw stones is never a justification for such excessive use of force and sweeping arrests by law enforcement.”

Arbitrary arrests and beatings of protesters must immediately end in #Lebanon. https://t.co/mEpGCD8hrt. #humanrights.
— Amnesty UK Mid East (@AIMidEastGulf) January 16, 2020

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior and Municipalities to “promptly hold law enforcement officers accountable for using excessive force,” saying riot police had beaten protesters and media workers.
“The unacceptable level of violence against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters on January 15 calls for a swift independent and transparent investigation,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director. 
“The vicious riot police attack on media workers doing their jobs is an egregious violation of security force obligations to abide by human rights standards.”
Interior minister al-Hassan said in a tweet that she condemned the attacks on journalists, and that accountability proceedings were already under way. She later told reporters that, while the attacks were not justified, riot police were tired after months of protests.
Protesters have taken to the streets since October to demand an end to corruption among Lebanon’s ruling elite and an overhaul of the confessional political system, where power is apportioned among ethnic and sectarian groups.
Lebanon has been without a government since October 29, when the cabinet resigned under pressure from the protest movement.
A former education minister and university professor Hassan Diab was nominated as a new prime minister last month and tasked with forming a new cabinet, but demonstrators have called for a government of independent technocrats to steer the country through its economic crisis.
Local media reported that a new cabinet could be named on Friday, while caretaker Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil said on Thursday that politicians were “on the doorstep of forming a new government”.
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Lebanon: Fire erupts in Beirut building designed by Zaha Hadid |NationalTribune.com

A fire has broken out in a downtown Beirut building near the city’s port where an explosion last month killed nearly 200 people, wounded thousands and left the city’s residents traumatised. It was not immediately clear what caused the fire in one of the city’s best-known buildings that was the work of the late Iraq-born…

Lebanon: Fire erupts in Beirut building designed by Zaha Hadid |NationalTribune.com

A fire has broken out in a downtown Beirut building near the city’s port where an explosion last month killed nearly 200 people, wounded thousands and left the city’s residents traumatised.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire in one of the city’s best-known buildings that was the work of the late Iraq-born British architect, Zaha Hadid.
The oval-shaped building was still under construction and sits on the main road that passes by the port.
“It’s terrible. It’s unbelievable,” said Joe Sayegh, 48, who had been on a jog through the city before coming to the scene. “Every day we have a problem.”
Lebanese broadcaster al-Jadeed earlier showed images of smoke billowing from the building, located near Beirut Souks, a 100,000-square-metre shopping mall in the centre of the city.

Good morning – in today’s news from #Lebanon, a huge fire erupted in the Beirut souks, in one of Zaha Hadid’s signature design buildings. pic.twitter.com/Ahs1pIc0bf
— Luna Safwan – لونا صفوان (@LunaSafwan) September 15, 2020

A civil defence official said they extinguished the fire, adding that an investigation will be opened. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
“We received a call that there is a fire near Majidieh mosque. When we first arrived the fire was very strong. This is a building under construction known as the oval building in Beirut’s markets,” said Fadi Mazboudi, member of the fire brigade department.
“Thank God, firefighters and the civil defence were able to put the fire under control as fast as possible despite the limited capabilities.”
It was the third fire in the area within a week following two recent fires at the port of Beirut, including a huge one on Thursday that raised panic among residents. Another blaze earlier this month was extinguished quickly. The causes of those fires are unclear.
Beirut’s residents are still shaken by the fire that led to an enormous blast on August 4, killing nearly 200 people, injuring 6,500 and causing damage worth billions of dollars.
The explosion of around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port for six years also left a quarter of a million people homeless.
The cause of the explosion and the fire that led to it are still under investigation. The blast led to the government’s resignation six days later.
Lebanon is gripped by an unprecedented economic crisis and financial collapse, blamed on decades of mismanagement and corruption by an entrenched political class.
France is pressing Lebanon to form a new government to tackle endemic corruption and implement reforms to unlock aid. But many Lebanese remain sceptical that Lebanon’s political elite can chart a new course.
“With these people, if they are the same people, nothing will change,” Sayegh said.
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In Lebanon, Macron offers the carrot or the stick |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – French President Emmanuel Macron presented Lebanon’s political establishment with two choices during a trip that ended Tuesday: implement reforms, and vital international aid will flow plentifully, but continue on the same path, and the doors to assistance will slam shut – and the country’s ossified political leadership may be directly targeted with…

In Lebanon, Macron offers the carrot or the stick |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – French President Emmanuel Macron presented Lebanon’s political establishment with two choices during a trip that ended Tuesday: implement reforms, and vital international aid will flow plentifully, but continue on the same path, and the doors to assistance will slam shut – and the country’s ossified political leadership may be directly targeted with sanctions.
“I did not come today to give a warning, but I returned to help Lebanon and accompany it to its future,” Macron said on Tuesday, 100 years since colonial France declared the founding of Greater Lebanon.
Macron arrived in Beirut on Monday with the aim of pushing the country’s sectarian leaders to find consensus over reforms and over the need to end decades of corruption and mismanagement that have devastated the country. He pledged to hold an aid conference for the economically-devastated nation at the end of October if reforms are commenced.
His previous visit came just days after a monstrous explosion last month killed 190 people, injured more than 6,000 and wrecked half of the city, causing up to $4.6bn in physical damage, according to a World Bank assessment.
At the time, Macon came bearing a message that change was necessasry if the country was to avoid total collapse.
“You are at a critical moment in your history where the political system must be reformed,” he said on Tuesday.
“When a country disintegrates, you never know when it will be reborn.”

Macron was in Lebanon 100 years after colonial France declared the founding of Greater Lebanon [Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AFP]

New PM not a ‘messiah’
Indeed, there is little to celebrate – and much to fear – as Lebanon marks its 100th birthday. In the past year it has witnessed massive protests, deep economic and financial crisis, a surging coronavirus outbreak and one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded.
Since Macron’s last visit, Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s flailing government resigned and a new Prime Minister, Mustapha Adib, has been appointed by the country’s establishment under direct French pressure.
France aimed to ensure that whoever is selected has wide political buy-in, unlike Diab.
Macron admitted that Adib was not a “messiah” and contended that Adib knew that he was backed by “political forces that have lost the confidence of the public”.
Nevertheless, he said Adib was able to form a capable government and to implement the needed reforms. And Macron said he had heard encouraging words from political leaders.
He split Tuesday between ceremonial gestures – a visit to the destroyed Beirut port and planting a cedar tree, the country’s national emblem – and tete-a-tete meetings with politicians, whom he summoned to the ambassador’s residence.
Macron told reporters that they had pledged to form a government within 15 days – unprecedented in Lebanon’s recent history, where government formation usually take many months.
The government would then have to implement reforms to the crippled electricity sector and the insolvent financial sector within three months, and hold early parliamentary polls within a year.
Macron promised to return by December to follow up on the reform process.

Macron says the next round of reform talks with Lebanon would broach the thorny issue of Hezbollah’s arsenal, which rivals that of the Lebanese army [Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AFP]

Sanction threats
If reforms are not implemented, Macron said he would inform the international community that no aid could flow and he would talk openly about those in Lebanon who were blocking change.
“We will not give Lebanon a carte blanche, or a blank check,” he said.
He also said he did not rule out sanctions against political leaders, but said that France would first have to prove crimes such as corruption or terrorism had been committed.
A western diplomat told Al Jazeera that Macron was keeping the option of sanctions open as “a stick he can wave” at politicians.
This includes the threat of sanctions against President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who heads the country’s largest party in terms of its share of seats in parliament.
However, the source said that there were no sanctions currently being prepared, as the international community waits for the Lebanese response to Macron’s initiative.
All political leaders have so far expressed their openness to the French initiative, including Hezbollah and Aoun. Several leaders have also called for Lebanon to finally make the move to being a secular state – a shift mandated by its constitution – though they have also said this in the past.
Currently, all seats in parliament are allocated by sect, and top state positions are meted out along religious lines.

Macron says he plans to return to Lebanon in December [Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AFP]

Macron was repeatedly asked to justify his decision to give Hezbollah a seat at the table by meeting with a top Hezbollah official.
The Iran-backed armed group and political party is blacklisted as a terrorist group by western nations including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, but France maintains relations with its so-called “political wing”.
Macron said Hezbollah was a major constituent of the Lebanese population, with representation in parliament, and it would be foolish to exclude the group from the reform process.
He said that the next round of reform talks with Lebanon would broach the thorny issue of the group’s arsenal, which rivals that of the Lebanese army.
“Will we get to results directly? I don’t know,” said Macron. “But it shouldn’t be a taboo.”
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A new exodus from Lebanon after deadly Beirut blast |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – Mazin Kabbani, a 50-year-old IT employee, was at his home in west Beirut on August 4 when shockwaves from an enormous explosion rocked his apartment, leaving shards of glass scattered across his living room floor. The blast, caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tonnes of unsecured ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, left…

A new exodus from Lebanon after deadly Beirut blast |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – Mazin Kabbani, a 50-year-old IT employee, was at his home in west Beirut on August 4 when shockwaves from an enormous explosion rocked his apartment, leaving shards of glass scattered across his living room floor.
The blast, caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tonnes of unsecured ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, left Kabbani shaken and brought back dark memories of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
“All the oxygen was sucked out of the air. It was like we were at war again,” Kabbani told Al Jazeera as he stood at the entrance to his apartment building and handymen walked in with equipment to repair the damage caused by the blast.
More traumatising for Kabbani than his own experience was the thought that his 21-year-old daughter, Alaa, might have been dead if luck had not been on her side that day. 
“We couldn’t reach her for hours after the blast,” the father of four said, recalling how his middle child had been on her way to a restaurant in Gemayze, an historic neighbourhood close to the port, when the explosion hit.
“If it wasn’t for a last-minute change in her plans, she might not be with us any more,” he said.
His eyes turned red and he choked on his words as he held back the tears. 
Already exhausted by a continuing financial crisis, deteriorating public services and deep political instability, the blast was the final straw for Kabbani and his family. Like many Lebanese, Kabbani now sees no choice but to leave. Despite previously wanting to stay in his home country until the end of his life, he is now determined to settle with his family elsewhere. 
“My wife and I were committed to establishing a life here. Even though I’d briefly toyed with the thought of leaving when we first got married, my wife insisted that we stay and raise our kids close to our families,” he said.
“But since the blast, she has been the one pushing for us to emigrate,” he explained, adding that the family was already in the process of completing migration papers to Canada.

Kabbani, a 50-year-old father of four says he is in the process of completing immigration papers to Canada [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Like Kabbani, the blast reminded Nizar*, a 38-year-old business owner in Beirut, of the Lebanese civil war and made him fearful for his four-year-old son’s safety and security. 
“Being a war child [someone who experienced the civil war], the windows’ rumbling reminded me of my grandmother’s voice telling me to move away as a bomb was about to explode,” said Nizar remembering Beirut in the 1980s.
“If my son had been at home that day, he would have been dead or severely injured. Just the thought of it drives me crazy,” said Nizar, adding that he and his wife, who holds a US passport, had decided to leave in two weeks. 
“We’ve booked our flights, rented an apartment in New York and are packing up our lives in Beirut for good,” he added. 
Nizar, who asked for his name to be changed for privacy concerns, said feelings of responsibility towards Lebanon had previously held him back and gave him “cold feet” every time he thought of leaving. 
“I feel guilty to be going, guilty for being able to leave when others can’t, but Lebanon is not safe any more. I just can’t do this to my family,” he said.
‘Mass exodus’ 
Although only an indicator, Information International, a Beirut-based research consultancy firm that has done extensive research about migration in Lebanon, said its records show the average number of people leaving the country on a daily basis increased from 3,100 before the day of the blast, to 4,100 people after the incident. 
“There are no accurate statistics on the effect of the blast yet, but the number of people leaving Lebanon will definitely increase over the next few months as a result of it,” said Jawad Adra, founder and managing partner of Information International.
“We are already seeing a mass exodus.” 
Photos of packed departure lounges at Rafic Hariri Airport have been circulating over social media as many Lebanese people from across the board have said they want to leave the country since the blast. But according to Adra, many of the first to leave have been affluent families and dual nationals, adding that “the ability to go is a privilege”. 
“Many people want to leave, but not everyone can afford it or has assets like money, education, another nationality or relatives abroad to help,” he explained, adding that emigration also depended on the willingness of host countries to take in Lebanese nationals. 
Several countries have shown solidarity with Lebanon after the blast by easing immigration processes. France resumed issuing visas to Lebanese citizens after a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, while Canada introduced special immigration measures to help Lebanese citizens and Canadians residing in Lebanon come back. 
The idea of migration is anything but new in a country that has a long history of “exodus” due to years of war, famine and political instability and economic crises. 
“Tens of thousands of people have left over the past 10 to 20 years, with the largest demographic being young professionals and people under the age of 45,” said Adra. 
The past few months have also been particularly challenging. The deepening financial crisis has left many struggling to find work or afford basic goods, and pushed many to leave the country. 
“Many of my friends and family have left over the past year and especially since October,” said Nizar, referring to the deteriorating conditions in the country which pushed thousands onto the streets to protests the government, corruption and lack of basic services. 
According to a report issued by Information International, data derived from general security records showed that the number of Lebanese people who left the country and did not return was 66,806 between mid-December 2018 and mid-December 2019, a 97.5 percent increase compared with the same period a year earlier.
‘For my children’ 
But even as prices increased and life became more difficult over the past couple of years, Shireen Anouti, a 34-year-old housewife, resisted leaving with her three children and husband, Mohamed, a businessman and dual Swedish national.
“Even as the economic crisis hit the country, I didn’t want to go,” she said. 
“But after the blast, everything changed,” she added as she hugged her three-year-old daughter Julia and recounted how her uncle, a long-term hospital patient, died in the ward at Roum Hospital after shards of glass ripped through his body due to the blast.
Anouti said her family plan to migrate to Sweden within the next few weeks.
“It’s time to leave. There’s no safety for my children in Lebanon. They deserve a future without fear, without trauma.”

Anouti, 34, said she and her family plan to move to Sweden within the next few weeks [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

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