Ramy Finge, a dentist in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, received summons from the police on Tuesday to face questioning about an unusual charge: giving food to protesters during anti-government demonstrations last month.
The demonstrations were triggered by a strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown that hit particularly hard in Lebanon's second-largest city and one of its poorest areas where many residents depend on daily wages to survive. The country is already suffering an economic crisis blamed on decades of mismanagement and political corruption.
“I was advised not to go to the station,” said Dr Finge, who often works with humanitarian groups. “But I have nothing to be afraid of, so I went.”
He told The National he was unsure what to expect when he visited the Al Tal police station on February 18, accompanied by the head of Tripoli municipality, the head of the dentists' association in north Lebanon, and three lawyers.
He said he was staggered by the charge put to him: “You, Ramy Finge, were giving out food to protesters in Al Nour square on January 31, 4.30pm. Yes or no?” it read.
“It was ridiculous,” Dr Finge said. “I answered yes, and that I had permission from the Lebanese Army.”
The second question was no surprise: “Who is funding you?”
“Citizens from all areas, backgrounds, and sects," he replied. "Would you like their names?”
Dr Finge recounted how he had told soldiers at the square where protests were taking place that he wanted to distribute food to the protesters, and was allowed to enter.
“We helped people in broad daylight because we have nothing to hide,” he said. “We’ve been doing this since day one.”
"We are people working together and for each other to overcome this crisis," Dr Finge told The National. "The crisis that they caused."
“This is a huge scandal and a blatant form of oppression,” said Mohamed Sablouh, one of the lawyers who accompanied Dr Finge to the police station, and has been following up on the arrests of dozens of people during a crackdown on the protests.
“Court procedures were all paused due to lockdown, and while protesters are detained with no trial, they still had the time to bring in Dr Finge,” he said.
The lawyer said the summons had neither a logical nor a legal basis. “It is simply to silence people.”
Protesters detained in Tripoli were accused of forming “gangs”, vandalising public property and assaulting security forces. At least 15 have been formally charged and are to appear in military court.
Ali Abbass, another lawyer following up on the protester arrests and a member of Lebanon’s Popular Observatory to Fight Corruption, said Lebanese authorities were acting like a police state, silencing those who dared to speak up against the dire situation.
"They know we're headed towards an even worse crisis, and they want to tell people that those who protest will be punished," he told The National.
Long-simmering anger at Lebanon's authorities grew on Thursday after a top court ruled to remove the judge investigating the deadly explosion at Beirut port on August 4 last year, at the request of two of the four politicians he indicted in December.
The Popular Observatory to Fight Corruption called a press conference on Friday to condemn the judicial system for preying on the weak while letting the powerful go free. Mr Abbas took part along with another lawyer, Jad Tohme.
"A just judicial system is one that exposes corruption and holds the powerful accountable, it doesn't target those screaming out of hunger, poverty and desperation," Mr Tohme said.
The observatory would expose every corrupt judge working in favour of the ruling class, he said, while calling for an impartial and plausible judicial system.
“People protesting for their rights are not lawbreakers or terrorists or criminals,” he said. “They are people who have been robbed twice by the state. First by theft of public money and second by theft of their own bank deposits.”
Mr Tohme was referring to controls placed on bank withdrawals because of the economic crisis.
“We ask the judicial system, what about the stolen funds? What about the currency devaluation? What about the economic crisis? What about the smuggling of subsidised goods? What about the August 4 blast? Who will be punished for these crimes?” he said.
"They wanted to close the blast investigation file, but we assure them it won’t be closed. What happened on August 4 was a crime against humanity, one that can be internationally prosecuted, and there are no protections there."