Lebanon: Detained activists blackmailed into signing illegal pledges

Human rights activists in Lebanon are being blackmailed into signing illegal pledges stating that they would refrain from certain acts as a condition for release from detention, Amnesty International has learned.

A number of people have recently been arrested for expressing their political opinion or for their human rights activism, and have been detained, interrogated and intimidated before being ordered to sign such pledges in exchange for their release.

“These so-called pledges are no more than an intimidation tactic that has no legal basis in Lebanese law,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

“Authorities have been using them in an attempt to silence activists and other individuals who should never have been detained in the first place.

“Peaceful activists are among those being detained and interrogated, before being told that they can only be released if they sign these pledges. This is a worrying indicator of the authorities’ trend to restrict the rights of people to freely express their opinion or conduct human rights activities.”

The pledges are a piece of paper stamped by the relevant military and security forces on which detained individuals are asked to write a text vowing not to commit a certain act again. The pledge has no grounds in Lebanese law and is not actually legally binding. Activists aware of their rights often refuse to sign the pledge, and are released regardless.

Amnesty International has reviewed several cases where due process rights – including the right to a lawyer – were not respected. Activists also told Amnesty International that they had witnessed acts of torture and other ill-treatment taking place while detained.

In a further worrying development, Amnesty International found that military and security authorities also had detailed access to the personal data of many activists, including printed accounts of their WhatsApp and text message exchanges, and their phone calls.

Pledges as an intimidation tactic

In the past, the pledge was used by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) in local police stations to intimidate people accused of assault in disputes or in cases of domestic violence. The accused were invited to sign a pledge not to repeat their behaviour, which was also retained as a semi-official record of the alleged offence in case of future recurrence.

Since 2014 however, the use of pledges has become an established practice in a variety of military and security forces, including the cybercrime bureau and other bureaus falling under the General Security, the information branch of the ISF, and the Lebanese Army Intelligence.

“We are seeing the increasingly widespread use of pledges by military and security forces in an attempt to silence critics or anyone whose conduct they disagree with,” said Lynn Maalouf.

“These unlawful attempts to silence certain parts of society must end. The right to freedom of expression must be respected and protected. No one should be detained or threatened for peacefully expressing their views.”

Amnesty International is calling on the Lebanese authorities to stop the use of unlawful pledges; to protect freedom of expression; to respect the right to liberty and security of persons, and ensure suspects and detainees are treated humanely and according to their due process rights; to treat children (under 18) according to the rules of juvenile justice, which specify that children should only be detained as a last resort; and to promptly and impartially investigate reports of torture and other ill-treatment in detention centres.

Teenager detained for WhatsApp picture

Youssef Abdallah, 15, was detained after changing his profile picture on messaging service WhatsApp to an image containing text derogatory of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and his party.

On 19 June 2018, military intelligence summoned Youssef Abdallah and his father Georges for interrogation. Youssef was detained for interrogation, while his father was asked to leave, but refused to do so. He insisted on going back to the interrogation room where he saw his son handcuffed and blindfolded, without the presence of a lawyer or a social worker. A lawyer asked to be present during the interrogation, but the military did not allow him access to the teenager.

Youssef Abdallah was released the next day at midnight, after spending approximately 38 hours in detention. During this time, he was interrogated on the source of the image and whether he knew of any people who had insulted the president. Youssef reported hearing sounds of insults and screams while in detention.

Youssef Abdallah was only released after he and his father signed pledges vowing to never insult the president or his party again. He was not charged with any offence. Georges said: “I thought I had lost my son, I thought they had killed him under torture. We couldn’t sleep, we lost our minds. When I saw him, I read horror in his eyes. My son saw and heard too much. This is not Lebanon, and this is not the year 2018.”

Palestinian human rights defender detained

Ghassan Abdallah, the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Organization (PHRO), a well-established NGO addressing Palestinian refugee rights in Lebanon, was summoned by the General Directorate of General Security and interrogated on 14 May 2018.

The interrogation focused on Ghassan Abdallah’s travels and meetings outside Lebanon, the PHRO’s membership in the Euro-Med Rights network and whether these included “Israeli” associations, and the nature of working and personal relationships between the PHRO and these associations. Ghassan Abdallah was also questioned about his visits to Palestine, and phone calls he had received from there.

Ghassan Abdallah was then taken to the army intelligence headquarters in the Yarzeh district of Beirut, where he was again submitted to another round of interrogation and held overnight. When the interrogation was finished, he was told to sign a pledge not to revisit Palestine, or at least request permission prior to visiting Palestine again. He refused to sign it. Mr Abdallah was later informed that this had been a test whether or not he would sign the pledge, as such settlements do not exist.

While in detention, Ghassan Abdallah observed ill-treatment of foreign detainees, particularly Syrian nationals. He saw detainees being handcuffed with their hands behind their back, blindfolded, and kicked, and forced to stand for prolonged periods of time. In total, he spent approximately 50 hours in detention without access to a lawyer. He was released without being charged.

Beirut Pride coordinator detained

Campaigners for the rights of LGBT people in Lebanon organized events to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) in May 2018. Hadi Damien, the coordinator of an organisation called Beirut Pride, was detained on 14 May 2018 by the ISF. He was taken to the police station where he was held overnight, where 39 people were reportedly detained in a cell with a capacity for five.

He was called for interrogation at 11am the next morning for allegedly “encouraging debauchery and offending public decency”. The ISF reportedly used derogatory terms to refer to LGBT people, and claimed they had received an Arabic version of the programme of Beirut Pride which they said listed events that appeared to encourage “debauchery”. The programme was later proved to be a fake one.

The General Prosecutor of Beirut then cancelled all the events organized by Beirut Pride to mark IDAHOT, and reportedly offered Hadi Damien either of two options: to sign a pledge to the effect that he acknowledged the ruling of the General Prosecutor, or be officially detained for coordinating events that “incited debauchery and immorality”, and “disrupting public order”. Hadi Damien signed the pledge and was released.