(Beirut) – A Lebanese activist was arrested on March 21, 2017, and faces charges over a Facebook post criticizing public officials, Human Right Watch said today. The arrest and detention of the activist, Ahmad Amhaz, is incompatible with Lebanon’s human rights obligations. Lebanese authorities should immediately release him and stop bringing charges for criticizing public officials.
Amhaz’s lawyer and family told Human Rights Watch that he was detained on March 21, and transferred to Lebanon’s cybercrimes bureau, apparently for a February Facebook post in which he criticized Lebanon’s president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament. The lawyer said that authorities interrogated Amhaz without a lawyer present, and the general prosecutor charged him under articles 383, 384, and 386 of Lebanon’s penal code, which criminalize criticism of public officials. He remains in jail and faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
“Lebanese authorities have established a troubling pattern of arresting and charging those who criticize government officials,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should free Ahmad Amhaz and drop the charges against him, and parliament should repeal vague and overbroad laws that criminalize free speech.”
Amhaz, who participated in protests against a waste crisis in Beirut in 2015, is scheduled to appear on March 27, before an investigative judge, who will decide whether to release him. Seven human rights and media organizations issued a statement on March 24, condemning Amhaz’s arrest, and calling on Lebanon to repeal laws criminalizing defamation and criticism of public officials.
Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.” But the Lebanese penal code criminalizes libel and defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases. Article 384 of the penal code authorizes imprisonment of six months to two years for insulting the president, the flag, or the national emblem.
Laws that allow imprisonment in response to criticism of individuals or government officials are incompatible with Lebanon's international obligations to protect freedom of expression. Such laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, and they chill freedom of expression. In addition, “libel,” “defamation,” and “insult” are not well-defined in Lebanese law, and such vague and broadly worded provisions can be used to quell criticism of the actions or policies of government officials.
The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has held that “harassment, intimidation or stigmatization of a person, including arrest, detention, trial or imprisonment for reasons of the opinions they may hold, constitutes a violation” of the covenant, which Lebanon ratified in 1972. The committee has stated its disapproval of laws that criminalize insulting the head of state or national symbols. It has made clear that “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.”
Local and international human rights organizations have long documented Lebanon’s use of libel and defamation laws to penalize lawyers, journalists, and activists for opinions and statements that are protected under international human rights law. In December 2016,Lebanese authorities arrested Bassel al-Amine, a 21-year-old journalism student, for a critical Facebook post.
The Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom found in a 2016 report that Lebanese defamation laws were being used for “targeting activists and dissidents and … intimidating online journalists, bloggers and Internet users from speaking about certain subjects, thus paving the way for self-censorship and the chilling of speech.”
In October 2015, MARCH, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization working on freedom of expression, created a hotline, promising legal support to anyone summoned by Lebanon’s cybercrimes bureau for online expression.
The proliferation of such prosecutions and the threat of arrest reflect an urgent need for Lebanon’s parliament to remove criminal sanctions for libel, defamation, and criticism of public officials and symbols.
“Arresting someone for criticizing leading politicians serves no legitimate purpose but does undermine free speech in Lebanon,” Fakih said. “Lebanese authorities should guarantee the right to freedom of expression rather than attempting to quash criticism.”