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Rights groups pen open letter to U.N. on free speech
August 18, 2018
Author: Ghinwa Obeid
Source: The Daily Star

Several human rights organizations wrote an open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Friday concerning to the recent surge in the number of activists and journalists being summoned for investigation in Lebanon. The letter was addressed to U.N. human rights chief Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and David Kaye, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to express our great concern about the current human rights situation in Lebanon,” the letter said.

The organizations, the majority of them Lebanese, said their appeal was triggered by Lebanese Center for Human Rights President Wadih al-Asmar’s announcement Thursday that he was called in for questioning by the Internal Security Forces’ Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau.

Asmar’s case comes amid a surge in recent weeks in the number of activists who were called in by the bureau for their posts on social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter.

The signatories of the letter were the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, ALEF – Act for human rights, the Alkarama Foundation, the Arab Network for Democratic Elections, the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Association for Freedom and Equality in the Middle East and North Africa, the EuroMed Rights Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights – Lebanon, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities, the Media Association for Peace, the Dutch peace organization PAX, the Phenix Center for Economics & Informatics Studies, SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom and Umam for Documentation and Research.

In an evening tweet, Progressive Socialist Party head Walid Joumblatt condemned Asmar’s case. “Is the country turning into a police system that suppresses freedoms? [Weeks ago], we witnessed the suppressive act by State Security toward Rasheed Joumblatt. We want the truth regarding Wadih al-Asmar.”

Rasheed Joumblatt was detained overnight earlier this month for comments he made on Facebook back in January.

“Enough with these random prosecutions and enough with infringement on free opinion,” Walid Joumblatt had said in a follow-up tweet.

Friday’s joint letter went on to say that, “for many months, Lebanese security agencies, particularly the Cybercrimes Bureau ... have been summoning individuals with regard to social media posts. Many of these convocations result in periods of deprivation of liberty and often end with activists signing pledges restricting their freedom of expression.”

It said that at least 39 people have been summoned since 2016 for making public comments “criticizing the Lebanese authorities or political figures.”

It also added that although many of those detained have been released, others called in were charged under Lebanese Penal Code Articles 383 to 386, which are related to slander, contempt and libel directed at public officials.

Nevertheless, an ISF source told The Daily Star that the amount of criticism being directed at the agency on the issue was unjustified.

“There is a personal complaint against [those who are being called in],” the source said. “This entire process comes because someone is harmed [by certain posts] and they take the issue to the public prosecution. The public prosecution studies [the cases] based on laws, including the Penal Code. The complaints get accepted and are transferred to [the ISF], which calls the person in.”

The source said that the ISF didn’t deserve to be targeted, and said that instead, the defendants should find out why a complaint was issued against them. “[The ISF] carries out its job according to the laws,” the source said.

In the letter, the NGOs touched on cases that were referred to the Military Court, journalists whose cases were referred to Criminal Court instead of the Court of Publications, as well as people who were released after signing a pledge that they would refrain from writing about certain officials.

“The authorities have been resorting to these severe violations of fundamental rights and freedoms in a systematic fashion, deterring individuals from speaking out and creating a feeling of insecurity and self-censorship,” the letter said.

“We believe that the right to freedom of expression is a sine qua non condition for the realization of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of human rights.”

The signatories said that they are aware of the authorities’ responsibility to protect the rights and reputations of people, but asserted that this should not come the right to freedom of expression.

They said the state should be “reminded of their commitment and obligation to ensure ‘freedom of speech and belief.’”

“Given the extreme gravity of these human rights violations and their recent escalation, we urge you [the high commissioner] to publicly and strongly condemn these violations of the rights to freedoms of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly in Lebanon,” the letter said.