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Lebanon: New evidence reveals French law enforcement equipment unlawfully used to crush protests

New Amnesty International research today exposes the shameful role that French law enforcement equipment has played in the crackdown on largely peaceful protests in Lebanon since October 2019, as well as in repression of the August 2015 protests.

The research documents Lebanese security forces’ unnecessary or excessive use of force against protesters using French-manufactured weapons, with no accountability for the serious injuries caused. The French government has not responded to Amnesty International’s letter and emails asking them to clarify whether sales are ongoing.  

“France has for years been supplying Lebanese security forces with law enforcement equipment that they then used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations, most recently during the 2019 October protest movement. In line with its obligations under international, regional and domestic laws, we call on France to ensure that there are no further sales until the Lebanese authorities have acknowledged past violations and most importantly taken action to deter them from re-occurring,” said Aymeric Elluin, advocacy officer on arms transfers at Amnesty International France.

France has for years been supplying Lebanese security forces with law enforcement equipment that they then used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations, most recently during the 2019 October protest movement.

Aymeric Elluin

“Lebanese security forces are operating in a climate of impunity. There has been no effective investigation of the unlawful use of weapons, including those made in France, against peaceful protesters, and not a single security officer has been held to account by judicial authorities.”

On 17 October 2019, mass protests broke out across Lebanon related to rising prices, high unemployment, dire public services and rampant and systemic corruption, continuing until March 2020, after which the compounded impact of COVID-19 and an unprecedented economic crisis, brought them to a halt, resuming only after the tragic August 2020 Beirut port explosion.  

At least 1,000 protesters were injured due to unlawful force by Lebanese security forces, often using French less-lethal weapons including chemical irritants, such as tear gas, and kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber bullets, and related launchers. French-made armoured vehicles are also used by the Lebanese security forces.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab and its Digital Verification Corps verified and analyzed 101 videos of protests in Beirut between October 2019-2020 and also from August 2015, in which there were multiple incidents of unlawful use of force by security forces. French equipment regularly appeared in the footage. Amnesty International was present on the ground in Beirut monitoring security forces’ use of force at protests. The organization interviewed over 90 protesters as injured victims or eyewitnesses and reviewed medical reports.

Lebanese security forces are operating in a climate of impunity. There has been no effective investigation of the unlawful use of weapons, including those made in France, against peaceful protesters, and not a single security officer has been held to account by judicial authorities.

Aymeric Elluin

The French equipment shown in the videos included vehicle-mounted launchers (Alsetex Land Cougar 12); tear gas grenades (Nobel Sport Sécurité MP7, Alsetex CM4 and CM6); rubber bullets (SAPL Gomm-Cogne ammunition calibre cartridges); grenade launchers (Alsetex Chouka and Cougar); and Arquus Sherpa armoured personnel carriers.

‘Failing the people’

In the 12 months following the initial outbreak of unprecedented mass protests on October 2019, lawyers filed at least 40 complaints to public prosecutors on behalf of injured protesters. Yet prosecutors failed to investigate the claims of unlawful force and torture, in some cases closing the investigations without effectively examining the claims, in other cases opening them but taking little action. Some of the complaints were referred to the military justice system, which under international human rights standards would not enjoy requisite independence to provide redress in the case of a human rights violation, and others were referred to the very agencies accused of torture and unlawful force to investigate the complaints.

Lawyer Diala Shehade filed a complaint on 19 August 2020 on behalf of a protester who lost his eye after being shot with a rubber bullet on 8 August. Diala Shehade told Amnesty International that prosecutors had failed to investigate the complaint.

The French authorities should inform Lebanese security forces that they can only resume exports once they demonstrate that such equipment is used in line with international law and standards on the use of force and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Aymeric Elluin

“The Public Prosecution is failing the people in cases of crimes committed against protesters. It is not assuming its responsibility as an independent, constitutional institution that holds criminals accountable,” Diala Shehade said.

Excessive and unlawful use of tear gas

Amnesty International documented the misuse of French-produced tear gas equipment– including SAE Alsetex and Nobel Sport Sécurité canisters and SAE Alsetex grenade launchers and vehicle-mounted weapons at protests between October 2019 and August 2020, as well as in August 2015, affecting mostly peaceful participants and bystanders in residential areas. Amnesty International was present on the ground and found tear gas cannisters with the date 2020 on them, indicating recent purchase.

In many instances, the purpose of the tear gas was clearly to disperse a largely peaceful protest, thus violating the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Amnesty International also documented security forces firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters – an unlawful and extremely dangerous practice, as well as from a moving vehicle, which makes controlled deployment impossible. This has led to serious head injuries and upper body injuries among protesters.

Rubber bullets shot at chest level

According to UN guidelines on the use of less lethal weapons, kinetic impact projectiles like rubber and plastic bullets must not be fired randomly at a crowd but must be aimed exclusively at those who are engaged in violence against persons and only when less harmful means have failed to contain the violence. They should be aimed at the lower part of the body to minimize the risk of serious injury.

However, after protests in January and August 2020, photos, videos, testimonies and medical records reviewed by Amnesty International showed that riot police often shot rubber bullets directly into largely peaceful crowds at chest-level and that many protesters sustained injuries to their eyes, face, neck, chest, upper arms and stomach. In some cases, police shot from close range.

President Macron’s pledge to support the Lebanese people should extend to the promotion of human rights, accountability and the rule of law in Lebanon instead of placing French equipment in the hands of serial human rights violators.

Aymeric Elluin

Video evidence from 18 January 2020 shows shotguns being fired at protesters from close range and French SAPL rubber bullet cartridges discovered on the ground. Over 400 protesters were injured, with at least three protesters hit directly in the eye.

“The French authorities should inform Lebanese security forces that they can only resume exports once they demonstrate that such equipment is used in line with international law and standards on the use of force and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. One way to demonstrate that is to show that there has been full accountability for past abuses and that adequate remedy exists for victims of abuse,” said Aymeric Elluin.

On 8 August 2020, two days after President Macron’s visit, protesters took to the streets in Beirut calling for accountability and justice. Security and military forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pump action pellets recklessly into largely peaceful crowds. Video evidence shows Lebanese security forces misusing a wide variety of French equipment on this day. Alongside SAE Alsetex Land Cougar 12 launchers, Cougar 56mm launchers, and Alsetex and Nobel Sport Sécurité tear gas grenades, Amnesty International identified tear gas being deployed from Arquus Sherpa armoured personnel carriers.

“President Macron’s pledge to support the Lebanese people should extend to the promotion of human rights, accountability and the rule of law in Lebanon instead of placing French equipment in the hands of serial human rights violators,”  said Aymeric Elluin.