Ali Basal and Samer Mazeh had just left a protest on the Ring Bridge in central Beirut on the night of November 14. Suddenly, they were swarmed by a small group of unidentified men. Within earshot of the packed bars on the popular Gemmayzeh Street, one of the men tried to arrest Mazeh as Basal demanded to know who they were. Minutes later, an army vehicle arrived and a man claiming to be a military intelligence officer jumped out.
“The officer was forcefully raising my arms above my head,” Basal told The Intercept, “and another came on a motorcycle and hit me in the back.” Basal continued, “I felt a pop in my back.”
The two were arrested and taken to a military facility where they were held overnight. At the protest, the pair said they were chanting and banging on pots and pans. During their interrogation, though, Basal said the authorities accused them of throwing rocks at security forces.
Basal and Mazeh are two of at least 450 individuals who have been detained by the Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces, the national police, since a national uprising began on October 17, according to human rights organizations and volunteer lawyers who have taken up their cases. In at least eight cases, according to Amnesty International, detainees have alleged torture. The allegations have been little remarked upon by the international press.
“Suddenly, someone comes over and tells us to kneel, pushing us to the floor, reloads a Kalashnikov over our heads, waits a bit, then takes us back inside.”
With renewed unrest in Lebanon after the announcement of a new government, abuses by security forces are again coming to the fore. On Thursday, Amnesty International urged the incoming government to immediately rein in security forces amid a harsh crackdown on protesters.
The harsh tactics carried out by the army, in particular, stand to weaken the institution’s standing in Lebanon as a steadying influence within the country’s chaotic politics. That role has garnered the military $1.7 billion in aid from the U.S. over the past decade — aid that could come under scrutiny as torture allegations surface and are corroborated.
Basal told The Intercept that he was among the tortured. He suffered a broken rib and said authorities mock-executed him during interrogation proceedings.
“They would take us outside of the building; we felt air as if we’re in an open space,” Basal recalled to The Intercept, adding that he and Mazeh were blindfolded. “Suddenly, someone comes over and tells us to kneel, pushing us to the floor … reloads a Kalashnikov over our heads, waits a bit, then takes us back inside.”
Basal is one of three detainees who shared their stories with The Intercept. Their accounts were corroborated by medical reports, their lawyers, and accounts from fellow detainees arrested with them.
The Lebanese army and police had earned plaudits from the international community throughout the nationwide protest movement for apparent restraint in their handling of the millions-strong demonstrations. In the first days of the uprising, a number of videos showing protesters embracing army officers went viral on social media. The army, arguably the nation’s most respected institution for its role as a stabilizing force since the end of the Lebanese civil war, has largely preserved its reputation as a result.
“At first, there was a decision by the army and internal security forces not to use excessive force,” said Halim Shebaya, a Lebanese political analyst. Shebaya characterized the security forces’ response into two phases: before and after October 29, the day Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government resigned.
After the resignation, pressure on the army from Lebanon’s political classes grew. Political leaders wanted the army to end the disruptions caused by the protests by, for instance, stopping demonstrators’ attempts to block roads. Security agencies, including the army, said protesters would be given their right to demonstrate if they remained restricted to “public squares and sidewalks.” The directive was followed by a worsening crackdown in the waning weeks of 2019, with several dozen more arrested and hundreds wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters.
Government allies have defended the army’s response, referencing the state-sponsored suppression of protests across the region in Iran and Iraq in recent months, where authorities have deployed overwhelming and often deadly force. In Iraq, where national protests began on October 1, at least 600 people have been killed and thousands wounded in clashes with security forces. In Iran, human rights organizations are still tallying the dead. Thus far, four people have died in Lebanon.
The detentions of protesters in Lebanon, however, have gone largely unreported outside of local media. Protesters have described to rights organizations experiences similar to that of Basel: being dragged from the street, attacked by military officials, and beaten and interrogated in secret detention centers in Beirut and across the country.
The arrests typically take place just on the outskirts of protests and out of frame from local television cameras, said Nermine Sibai, a lawyer with the legal advocacy group Legal Agenda, which has handled a number of the detainee cases.
“They’re taken at the hands of military intelligence … and we no longer know their whereabouts,” said Sibai. “There has been no transparency whatsoever in their interactions with us” — referring to lawyers.
Sibai drew an unfavorable comparison between recent protests with Lebanon’s 2015 protests, over the country’s garbage crisis, when the military largely did not play a role. In 2019, Sibai said the military has been involved from the beginning in a way in which it plays a primary role in countering protests. “These arrests are illegal,” said Sibai.
Several detained protesters alleged that the army tortured them during and after demonstrations in connection with their protest activity.
Accounts of Torture
On a recent evening, in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square — the epicenter of the protest movement — Khaldoun Jaber sat near a dimly lit wall splattered with revolutionary graffiti and recounted his experience. On November 13, he attended a protest in the Beirut suburb of Baabda on the main road leading to the presidential palace. The protest had been hastily organized after President Michel Aoun, in a television interview, harshly criticized the demonstrations. After several hours of leading protesters in chants against Aoun, Jaber said two men in civilian clothing approached him and asked to speak away from the crowd.
“The torture and beating ended when I spat out one of my molars and blood came out of my mouth.”
“Suddenly, I was swept onto the ground and dragged towards other security forces, where some 30 people began beating me,” Jaber told The Intercept. He said they were “men in civilian clothing with vests saying they’re from military intelligence and the Republican Guard.”
Jaber and other detainees were taken to a military hospital, where they were given medical clearance to go to a military-run detention facility. Jaber said he was held in solitary confinement, unable to speak to a lawyer or notify his family and friends of his whereabouts. “Nobody knew where I was for 18 hours,” he said.
As he was interrogated the following day, officers grilled Jaber, demanding to know if any embassies were paying him to protest. As they grew frustrated, Jaber said he was pressured emotionally and psychologically through a number of techniques he identified as torture. Jaber was repeatedly hit across his back and ribs with a stick. Jaber, who has an ear piercing, was also asked if he was gay and linked to the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, which made global headlines last July after the Maronite Church accused them of blasphemy. “The torture and beating ended when I spat out one of my molars and blood came out of my mouth,” said Jaber.
Photos: Hassan Chamoun for The Intercept; Daniel Medina for The Intercept
In another incident, Bachir Nakhal was eating with friends at Riad al-Solh Square until he heard a commotion at a police barricade nearby. “I took my phone to film what was happening, and I saw the people running towards us,” said Nakhal, who added that riot police were attacking and chasing the demonstrators.
He stopped filming as an officer approached him with a raised baton. Nakhal was hit on the back “and then a few of them surrounded me and started beating me.” Officers dragged him by his scarf over the barricade, where he was handcuffed with a dozen other protesters. He was punched in the face and began to spit blood. A riot police officer caressed his head telling Nakhal to call him “master.” Nakhal said he and the other detained protesters were denied medical treatment and spent the night in a military detention center.
As the detentions increase, an ad hoc group of lawyers across the country have taken on detainees’ cases. Dubbed the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon, they have helped guarantee medical examinations and appeals, and even provided legal advice for workers arbitrarily fired for taking part in the protests. The team’s Facebook page operates a hotline for free legal advice and queries; it is filled with updates on court cases, detentions, and other affairs related to protesters and security officials across the country.
The lawyers are being increasingly stymied because of the growing involvement of the military in the policing of protests, said Sibai, who is part of the lawyers’ group. Military agencies, Sibai added, have “not been cooperative at all.”
The Lebanese Armed Forces did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
Army’s Washington Support
The accusations made against the Lebanese Armed Forces come at an acutely tense time in Lebanon, which is suffering its worst economic crisis since 1990, the end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war. Protesters have taken to the streets en masse in recent months to demand an end to the country’s sectarian political system and express their anger at endemic corruption by elites over decades that have taken the economy to the brink of collapse.
Hariri’s resignation left a political vacuum that the establishment jostled to fill. Hassan Diab, a little-known professor and former education minister, in December won the support of a simple parliamentary majority to attempt to form a government. In the background, Washington has firmed up its support for the Lebanese army. Last month, the Trump administration quietly released congressionally approved aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces after inexplicably holding it for several weeks. After the new government was recently announced, the U.S. again withheld aid because of the government’s links to Hezbollah, the Shia militant group and political party backed by the U.S.’s archrival Iran.
Since 2010, Washington has provided the army with $1.7 billion in security aid. The funding is primarily geared toward the purchase of arms back from U.S. manufacturers and training of high-ranking Lebanese officers. It also ebbs and flows, skewing heavily toward U.S. interests in 2014 and 2015, for example, when funding climbed significantly to back the campaign against the Islamic State. Washington has viewed the funding and training as crucial to the Lebanese army’s ability to act as the country’s only credible counterweight to Hezbollah in the messy nexus of Lebanon’s sectarian power structure.
A State Department official would not comment directly on the allegations against the Lebanese Armed Forces, saying only that the “United States remains committed to strengthening the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces.” When asked how the Trump administration squared taxpayer funding with the alleged mistreatment of detainees, the official added: “This administration continually reviews and thoroughly evaluates the effectiveness of all United States foreign assistance to ensure that funds go toward activities that further U.S. foreign policy and national security interests, and do not directly or indirectly benefit our adversaries.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, made a surprise trip to Beirut in November to meet with Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun, retired Lebanese officers, and American diplomats. The purpose of his trip, he said, was to highlight the White House’s withholding of the crucial security aid, comparing it to the Ukrainian military aid held up by the Trump administration last summer that ultimately resulted in the impeachment of the president.
When approached by The Intercept, Murphy’s office would not comment on the allegations against the Lebanese Armed Forces.
“This pressure has been building up for so long. The barrier of fear has been taken down.”
It’s not only the security forces and army’s use of excessive force on protesters that has bewildered supporters of the uprising; it’s what they say is the authorities’ ambivalence toward protesters’ safety — the acquiescence, both passive and active, toward political violence aimed at the demonstrators. In several instances, partisans from Hezbollah and Amal, a smaller Shia party, attacked protesters in Beirut with sticks and rocks. But unlike in the cases of protesters beaten and arrested for filming or leading chants, the army and police did not arrest, or even confront, the attackers.
In one instance, when political partisans attacked protesters and burned down their tents, Legal Agenda claimed that security forces and the army were given orders to allow the incident to take place before ushering the partisans out of downtown Beirut.
Nakhal, the protester who was beaten for filming, remains optimistic despite the army’s actions. He said his experience has not deterred him; rather, he has returned almost daily to Martyrs’ Square to protest. The 23-year-old engineering graduate has been unemployed for two years, unable to find a job in a contracting economy. His struggles mirror those of many young people in Lebanon, where the youth unemployment rates stands, as of 2018, at 37 percent.
“This pressure has been building up for so long,” said Nakhal. Lebanese people, he said, have typically been afraid to confront their government. “The barrier of fear has been taken down.”