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Fresh protests in Lebanon amid warnings of declining freedoms

Thursday's Beirut protests were met with police violence amid warnings of declining freedoms [al-Araby al-Jadeed]

Date of publication: 9 October, 2015

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Police used water cannons and tear gas against fresh anti-government protests in Beirut, as politicians postpone another round of talks amid concerns that freedom in Lebanon is in steep decline.
Thirty-nine people were hospitalised and 65 others treated on site following overnight anti-government protest in Downtown Beirut, medics told Lebanese press on Friday.

Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered Thursday night in fresh protests against Lebanon's ruling elite and a months-long garbage crisis that activists warn has become a menace to public health.

The crisis began in July when the closure of a landfill caused rubbish to pile up on Beirut's roadsides, in parking lots and river beds.

There are fears the uncollected waste, coupled with the looming rainy season, could spread diseases such as cholera among the population.

"This isn't a political issue, this is a sanitation issue that affects the whole country," one protester told AFP.

In a message aimed at those Lebanese who had not joined the long-running "You Stink" protest movement, he asked: "Aren't you afraid that your children will get sick?"

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Thursday's protest began peacefully but security forces fired tear gas and water cannons after some demonstrators attempted to remove safety barriers and block a road in central Beirut, an AFP photographer said.

The Lebanese Red Cross said 35 people were treated for breathing problems at the scene.

Under public pressure, the government approved in September a plan to tackle the rubbish crisis, but campaigners said it was too vague and did not meet their demands.

Beirut municipality on Wednesday announced a raft of precautions to prevent the spread of diseases.

From stalemate to political coma

Lebanon's last legislative elections were held in 2009, and parliament has twice extended its own mandate
Lebanon's last legislative elections were held in 2009, and parliament has twice extended its own mandate, citing internal political divisions and regional instability as justification.

Earlier, the country's fractious leaders postponed talks aimed at resolving the political crisis that is feeding public discontent.

The Lebanese government grouping rival factions has struggled to take even basic decisions since it was formed last year. Lebanon has also been without a president for more than a year in the absence of a deal on who should take the post.

The crisis is linked to wider regional turmoil, including the war in neighbouring Syria which has driven well over one million refugees into Lebanon.

Lebanon's opposing political blocs are backed by rival states Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also back the warring sides in Syria.

Lebanon's parliament speaker canceled the last day of this week's session aimed at discussing ways out of the political crisis after politicians made no progress on issues including high-level security appointments, the National News Agency said.

The three-day "national dialogue" called by Nabih Berri started on Tuesday and was aimed at finding solutions to the stalemate. The talks were set to run into Thursday but Berri postponed the next session until October 26.

Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni-led Future Movement of former prime minister Saad al-Hariri. Iran backs the Shia party Hizballah, a powerful armed group, and its allies.

The anti-government rallies has been organised independently of the main sectarian parties in a direct challenge to the political system they control.

'Declining freedoms'

Nadim Houry, deputy director of HRW Middle East and North Africa agrees freedoms in Lebanon are declining
There is a general feeling among Lebanese that freedoms in their country are declining, following the government's harsh reaction to protests as well as criticisms and allegations of corruption. Dozens have been arrested during the protests so far, including several minors.

There has even been talk of the resurgence of the police state that was in place during the era of Syrian tutelage in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, journalists and activists have been given prison sentences for what they wrote in Facebook posts or detained for graffiti slogans, which many believe set a dangerous precedent.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed's Arabic service spoke to Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. Houry agrees with the assessment that freedoms in Lebanon are on the decline.

Houry voiced concerns regarding the use of the justice system in Lebanon to silence critics of the political, security and judicial authorities.

The HRW official also said the Lebanese Penal Code contains ambiguous provisions that some are exploiting to launch proceedings to undermine the freedom of expression.

Houry alluded to the allegations of torture used by the Lebanese security services, including army intelligence. He criticised the military tribunal which he said is being used to try civilians and to weigh in on issues related to public freedoms.

The HRW official said this climate seeks to pressure the Lebanese into self-censorship, including on social media, and avoid criticising the security services and the ruling political class to preserve their impunity.

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