Why are some Lebanese protesters 'terrorists' while so many thugs walk free?

Rioters in Tripoli committed offences, but they have been charged disproportionately to their crimes

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Last week, 35 protesters in Lebanon were charged with terrorism offences, which carry a maximum penalty of death. As Ayman Raad, one of the attorneys defending them, pointed out, this is the first time since October, 2019 that protesters have faced terrorism charges.

The events that led here began in January in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where demonstrations erupted against the country’s ongoing nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

What began as nonviolent protests quickly turned into riots and clashes with security forces – specifically, the Lebanese army. Tripoli has seen many protests since 2019. January’s scenes also evoked memories of violence that took place there between 2013 and 2014.

The city has long been under the state’s microscope. Although it was historically a strong base of support for Lebanon’s political leadership, it is now more often portrayed as “hosting extremism”, in part because it is home to a religiously conservative culture and also because many young men from the city have gone to fight in the civil war in neighbouring Syria. But it has also become a particularly impoverished city in the country’s ongoing economic crisis, leading many of its residents to disavow the political class altogether. So the army, rather than riot police, equipped with heavy weapons and armoured cars, is usually the force deployed to deal with them.

epa09035863 Families and relatives of those arrested from Tripoli, Beqaa wait in front the military court, to hear news about the results of the investigations with their sons in Beirut, Lebanon, 25 February 2021. The museum road in Beirut is still closed in both directions, near the Military Court, by the security forces and the families of the Tripoli events. People gathered to protest against the arrest of Tripoli demonstrators as detained protesters of Tripoli are facing military trials. The government commissioner in the military court, Fadi Akiki, has charged 35 young men, who were arrested in the Tripoli protests and previously released, on charges of terrorism.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

Tripoli’s protests were violent, to be sure. Demonstrators used fireworks and Molotov cocktails, and attempted to break into municipal offices. Within hours, buildings were set on fire.

Terrorism, however, seems to be either a misunderstanding or, worse, a deliberate mislabelling of what happened – and one with serious consequences, given the use of the death penalty. This is especially concerning when so many other acts of terrorism have occurred in Lebanon without perpetrators ever being brought to justice.

Tripoli is not unique in having citizens unhappy with the government’s policies. Violent and severe protests have taken place in many other parts of Lebanon, too, without drawing charges of terrorism. Peaceful protests have also been attacked by counter-protesters, or partisan gangs, with violence.

In just one instance in 2019, Lebanese security forces failed to stop attacks on peaceful demonstrators by men armed with sticks, metal rods, and sharp objects, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

The report cites dozens of protesters “who said they witnessed or were the victims of violent attacks by counter-demonstrators”. It goes on to say that “security forces failed to intervene to protect peaceful protesters from violent attackers on at least six occasions in Beirut, Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh and Sour, and no assaulter was ever brought to court”.

In the final two months of 2019, supporters of the Iran-backed militant political party Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement burned tents belonging to protesters in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, after beating demonstrators who were blocking the nearby Ring Bridge. The cars of protesters, as well as those of local residents, were damaged and one was set alight.

Hezbollah and Amal together wield enormous influence in Lebanon’s political system. Those who wave their flags seem to operate on the streets with impunity.

'Terrorism' is either a misunderstanding or, worse, a deliberate mislabelling of what happened

But they are not the only ones. In clear attempts to silence the broader protest movement that swept Lebanon in 2019, different groups supporting powerful politicians have attempted to burn down the Revolution Fist, a monument to popular resistance to the country’s corrupt elite, in Martyr’s Square. On two occasions they have succeeded.

Attacks on protesters were frequent throughout 2019 and 2020. But there were many even before that. One of the biggest remains the invasion of the Future Television building in Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah and Amal movement supporters surrounded the television station in Beirut’s Hamra district, preventing its employees from leaving or broadcasting for hours.

The station’s old building was burned down, meanwhile, by supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, another Hezbollah ally. That incident was never classified by the state as terrorism, no charges were pressed and to this day no one has been held responsible.

It was not even the first time Future TV was attacked. In June 2003, it was struck by two 107mm rockets, which damaged equipment in the main television studio, as well as the offices of Radio Orient.

Prosecutors’ decision to single the Tripoli protest out, then, raises suspicions of judicial favouritism, leading many in Lebanon to ask: are certain groups protected and others pursued? Why Tripoli?

The reality is that Tripoli is no longer a rock-solid base for those in power. Its protesters, unlike those who have committed violence in the examples cited above, do not throw their support behind Beirut’s elites, and so they are receiving no support, or even justice, in return.

Last week’s charges reveal the judicial favouritism that operates in Lebanon today, heavily influenced by political favours, leading to a group of people who might have protested, vandalised and rioted in the hope of being heard, but not engaged in terrorism, to be labelled terrorists. Others, meanwhile, who have tried to terrorise civilians for the sake of political dominance roam the streets of Beirut today, with a clean record, and maybe even an unjustifiably clean conscience, because no prosecutor ever held them accountable. Not even once.

Luna Safwan is a Lebanese freelance journalist who works on press freedom