Lebanon uprising protesters anxiously await military court trials

Lawyers decry military court trials with ‘no evidence’, while authorities dismiss investigations into the alleged torture of protesters.

Mohammad Bzeih leading chants at a protest in downtown Beirut [Courtesy of Mohammad Bzeih]

Beirut, Lebanon – The anti-government uprising that swept across Lebanon two years ago might be a distant memory to many in the country, now struggling with compounding economic crises that have paralysed much of public life, but that is not the case for the dozens of protesters who are currently awaiting trial at military courts.

More than 200 people – including six minors – who were detained and released during the protests were summoned many months later to the military justice system, accused of engaging in acts of violence against security forces, according to the watchdog Legal Agenda. Most of them have yet to be tried.

Among those detained was Alexandre Paulikevitch. The 39-year-old dancer was speaking to a police officer at a January 2020 protest at the central bank in the capital, Beirut, when five other officers dragged him by his hair and beat him. They arrested him and took him in overnight, alongside two other protesters.

“When they interrogated me, they wanted me to confess that I sprayed paint on one of their superiors,” Paulikevitch told Al Jazeera.

Alexandre Paulikevitch during a protest in Beirut [Courtesy of Alexandre Paulikevitch]

In September 2020, the dancer received a call from the Lebanese military inviting him over for a “cup of coffee”, a common term security agencies use when summoning someone for questioning. His home had been destroyed in the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port the previous month that devastated much of the capital.

“I said, ‘You’re joking! Military court?'” Paulikevitch recalled. “I lost my home in the blast, I lost my money, and I can’t fix my home because the banks won’t let me withdraw my money – and now you’re sending me to military court?”

At that point, Paulikevitch and the other two protesters he was detained with would be the first protesters from the uprising with scheduled hearings at the Lebanese military justice system. But the hearing was postponed, and the military prosecution did not contact them to schedule a new hearing until the following May.

The trio were then questioned in the same month, in the presence of two lawyers.

“They always try to create a conspiracy that protesters know each other and conspire together,” Paulikevitch recalled. “They would keep asking how we knew each other and so on. But once we told them the truth, we didn’t fall into the trap.”

In the end, all three were cleared. Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer at Legal Agenda who was present at the questioning, was not surprised.

“Just 64 of the 237 people charged by the military justice system have so far been tried,” Frangieh told Al Jazeera. “Ninety percent were declared innocent so far, because there is no evidence.”

Branding the prosecutions “abusive”, Frangieh said she believed they are politically motivated. “In this case, it’s to suppress the opposition.”

Mohammad Bzeih was summoned to a military investigation over a year after his arrest [Courtesy of Mohammad Bzeih/Al Jazeera]

The youth-led protest movement that came to life on October 17, 2019, saw hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand political change and economic reform away from the country’s sectarian ruling parties and banks.

The Lebanese pound has lost about 90 percent of its value over the past two years and today, about three-quarters of the population live in poverty and struggle to make ends meet.

Mohammad Bzeih, a member of the Lebanese Communist Party, was arrested in February 2020 while blocking one of the roads leading to Parliament with dozens of other protesters.

A video that was widely shared on social media showed him sitting next to soldiers in riot gear trying to appeal to them. He was talking about the economic crisis and how they are also victims of corruption and the country’s financial crisis.

“A soldier snatched me and transferred me to riot police behind them,” Bzeih, 25, told Al Jazeera. “Then a lieutenant and his officers started beating me up.”

Like many protesters, he was held overnight and released later. He had his first military court hearing more than a year later, in April 2021, when the protests had already waned.

“I was asked about why I was at the protest, what I was doing there, and I was rioting and destroying property,” Bzeih said, recalling his April hearing. “They set a bank branch on fire that night, but I was arrested before that happened.”

Though Bzeih was ruled innocent of attacking security forces and rioting, he was called back for another court session in late September.  Authorities cited firecrackers in his backpack for the summoning but Bzeih, who was cleared again, said he believed it was because he had provoked the prosecution during his defence in April.

Lebanon’s military justice system has a very broad jurisdiction against civilians, including trying them for espionage, treason and possession of weapons – but also for any form of conflict with security personnel. Some human rights organisations have been calling for the narrowing of that wide jurisdiction, while others want an end to all civilian trials in military courts.

Frangieh said military court investigations and hearings are rapid, unlike those at civilian courts, with judges often issuing verdicts on the same day without giving any explanations.

The experience, both lawyers and detainees say, takes a huge psychological toll.

“You worry about your criminal record, and basically your entire future,” Bzeih said.

On the other hand, Frangieh and other lawyers’ efforts to hold authorities to account for violence against protesters, such as in the cases of Paulikevitch and Bzeh, have either been dismissed or suspended.

In severer cases, protesters who were held in military detention centres alleged various forms of torture, while two detainees told Amnesty International they were subjected to mock executions.

No officer has been held to account, and the same has happened for security personnel who fired at protesters with live ammunition and metal pellets on August 8, 2020, four days after the Beirut port explosion. Human Rights Watch said security forces used disproportionate and “lethal force” on that day.

“All the complaints we filed about police violence against protests, they either closed them or froze,” Frangieh told Al Jazeera. “Military prosecution closed our torture complaints, and they froze our 22 complaints of security forces firing pellet guns at protesters or shooting them in the eyes.”

Source: Al Jazeera