BEIRUT: Fourteen civilians and one soldier appeared before Beirut’s Military Tribunal Monday morning on charges connected to You Stink movement protests against the government’s handling of the 2015-16 trash crisis. The defendants have been charged with forming armed gangs, vandalizing public property and assaulting security forces. Thirteen were present in court Monday, with two standing trial in absentia. If found guilty, each could face up to three years in prison, and court documents shown to The Daily Star warn of a hefty fine of LL39,610,000 ($26,300) for three of the defendants.
Brig. Gen. Hussein Abdallah presided over the day’s hearings and appeared to single out the soldier, Faiz Yassine, for criticism in his early remarks. “You are supposed to be on the Army’s side, with civil society members throwing rocks at you,” Abdallah said during the session.
Judge Hani Helmi al-Hajjar, representing the military public prosecution, noted that all of the indictments against the 15 were based primarily on surveillance footage. “The prosecution is based on camera photos that showed an assault on security forces,” he told the court.
According to Hajjar, the next court session will feature a large projection screen to show video from the alleged incidents. “Anyone who has been accused who does not appear in the video will be freed,” Hajjar said. “We will apologize in public for any wrongfully accused.”
After the nearly 25-minute session, Abdullah adjourned the case until March 20.
The You Stink movement, which was the driving force behind the 2015 protests, reacted swiftly to Monday’s hearing. “No international law would accept this kind of trial, [it’s unjust] that the government is putting people on trial and [fining them] for protesting,” Ziad Majdara, one of the seven founding organizers of You Stink, told The Daily Star.
Human rights organizations were equally vocal in their criticism. Saadeddine Shatila, head of the Lebanese branch of the human rights group Alkarama Foundation, added that the military court trial of You Stink protesters was a major breach of the freedom of speech. “People were protesting to raise their voices. They were exercising their rights. So first of all, the trial goes against the freedom of expression,” Shatila said.
Meanwhile, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Lama Fakih, condemned such trials of civilians, citing past incidents in which defendants and even minors were stripped of their civil rights in the military court system. Fakih was also one of few civil society members granted access to attend Monday’s hearing. Military court sessions are largely closed to all but a few with special access.
“We were really grateful that the court gave us access, from what I understand from the protesters and the defense counsel they felt that [our presence] made a difference,” Fakih told The Daily Star following the session.
“I spoke with a lawyer representing the defense of protesters ... she said she felt that there was a difference, that the court felt [like] it was observed,” Fakih said. “The defense had more time to make its case without interruptions,” she added.
“The allegations against them are false. The civil society movement did not commit any crimes, they were demanding their rights,” a defense attorney told the court during the session.
The closure of the Naameh landfill south of Beirut in July 17, 2015, sparked a monthslong crisis that left tons of garbage on the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The crisis led to mass demonstrations to demand government action. While they began as peaceful gatherings, later demonstrations were marred by clashes between protestors and the police. Video circulated online of soldiers firing into the air above protests and at a separate demonstration rocks were thrown at police. Water cannons were also deployed to disperse crowds before authorities deployed a more hands off approach to crown control using fencing and barbed wire to separate crowds from officers. Although the severity of the issues has died down, garbage disposal continues to remain a critical issue in Lebanon.
President Michel Aoun announced Monday that a new waste management plan was being drafted. The president made the comment to a delegation of municipal leaders, according to a statement from his press office. No further details were given. – Additional reporting by Youssef Diab