'Traitors': Lebanese protesters recount taunts and abuse from police

Demonstrators have also become more aggressive as frustration mounts over political stalling

Riot police arrest an anti-government protester who was protesting outside a police headquarters demanding the release of those taken into custody the night before, outside a police headquarter, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. Lebanese security forces arrested 59 people, the police said Wednesday, following clashes overnight outside the central bank as angry protesters vented their fury against the country's ruling elite and the worsening financial crisis. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Protesters, activists and journalists accuse Lebanon’s riot police of disproportionate use of force against largely peaceful crowds during several days of demonstrations in the capital Beirut.

Occasional bouts of violence have erupted since anti-government protests started on October 17, but the number of injured soared this week as frustration increased, culminating in violent clashes on Saturday evening.

The Lebanese are exasperated by the lack of political leadership to counter the country’s worst economic crisis in living memory. They accuse politicians of bickering over power sharing instead of implementing reforms.

“Riot police have declared war on us in downtown Beirut,” activist Nizar Hassan tweeted on Saturday after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring people in the face. “There is a clear political decision to end the uprising.”

The ISF has also complained of violence, claiming that injured policemen were attacked in hospitals on Saturday evening. Protesters broke ATMs as well as parking meters, telephone booths and the walls of an upscale shopping mall to throw debris at the police.

However, many protesters say they were beaten and humiliated even when demonstrating peacefully.

Chebl Yassine, 38, was one of more than 30 men who were detained on Wednesday during a protest outside a Beirut police station to demand the release of people arrested the previous night.

Riot police dragged him away by his hoodie and beat him after he tried to escort a female friend out of the protest as it turned violent, he said. A photographer for the Associated Press captured the moment as he choked on his back, mouth open, surrounded by a sea of riot police. It quickly went viral.

"They beat us from the moment we were arrested until we reached the police station. One policeman held a man by his hair and circled him on the ground, saying 'this is how we walk', and kicked him in the stomach," Mr Yassine told The National on Thursday, hours after his release.

“The whole time, our hands were tied with plastic straps” he said, showing red marks on his wrists. His head still in a bandage after a sleepless night at the police station, he was back protesting in Beirut on Thursday evening.

Chebl Yassine joins a protest at the The Ring highway in Beirut on January 16, one day after he was arrested by police in the Lebanese capital. Sunniva Rose for The National  
Chebl Yassine joins a protest at the The Ring highway in Beirut on January 16, one day after he was arrested by police in the Lebanese capital. Sunniva Rose for The National  

He said that riot police taunted the men as they beat them, saying “You want a revolution? This is your revolution”, and “If this were Syria, I would have trampled you with my feet, you son of a dog.”

Syrian security forces responded to peaceful protests in 2011 with torture and killings, eventually tipping the country into a bloody civil war. Syria and Lebanon share a long land border and have strong historical and commercial ties.

“Another guy told me: “Who do you think you are?” Even the Israeli army did not manage to enter the police station in 1982,” Mr Yassine said. “He meant that we were like Israelis and traitors to our country. I answered I was not Israeli, and he told me to shut up.”

Israel is widely hated in Lebanon. Its 1982 invasion of the capital, where the Palestine Liberation Organisation was based, is remembered as a traumatic experience. The two countries are still officially at war.

Mr Yassine said the detainees were treated decently once they arrived at the police station. They were interrogated before their release early on Thursday afternoon, he said.

Journalists have also faced violence from the riot police.

French photojournalist Greg Demarque told The National he suffered broken ribs and facial bruising after an altercation with a policeman who tried to take away his camera. He was the only journalist to be detained overnight on Wednesday. Seven others suffered injuries and two were detained and released within an hour, according to Human Rights Watch.

Journalists protested by staging a sit-in outside the interior ministry, pushing ISF chief Maj Gen Imad Othman to apologise on Thursday.

Echoing Mr Yassine’s story, a video emerged on social media of police beating handcuffed protesters after their arrest as they got out of a police truck on Saturday. The ISF retweeted it in the night, saying that Maj Gen Othman had ordered an investigation into the incident.

"There are small mistakes that take place during our work and we will punish those responsible. But how many have we done in 3 months? Nothing compared to our heavy workload," an ISF official told The National.

"We waited an hour and a half before intervening. We were attacked with rocks, tiles, fireworks and insults. Nobody could stand that."

He said 142 policemen were among the injured on Saturday night.

An aide to caretaker Interior Minister Raya Al Hassan did not respond to a request for comment.