BEIRUT: The detention of labor union leader Bechara Asmar over comments referencing the late Maronite patriarch has reignited the debate over freedom of expression, with public figures calling for Asmar’s resignation and trial while rights organizations condemned the perceived attack on free speech.
A video leaked Friday night showed Asmar, who heads the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, making lewd comments involving Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir ahead of a televised news conference, unaware that he was being recorded.
At the end of his remarks referencing the late patriarch, who died the previous weekend, a colleague joked that he should be “careful, the microphone might be on,” before the whole panel began laughing.
Shortly after the 34-second video circulated, public figures called for Asmar to resign and face trial.
A source from the GCLW secretariat told The Daily Star that the group received a verbal resignation from Asmar and was waiting for an official written resignation that it would accept in a meeting Monday. “If he doesn’t submit it, measures will be taken and he will most probably be dismissed,” the source said.
Asmar was detained Saturday after being questioned by acting Public Prosecutor Judge Imad Qabalan.
Qabalan has opened a probe into Asmar and the five other individuals in the video who appeared to be laughing at his comments.
A judicial source said Sunday that Asmar remained in detention while the five others were questioned and released. Asmar will be transferred Monday to the appeals court, the source said. Asmar’s lawyer told local TV channel Al-Jadeed Saturday that there was “no clear, explicit or convincing justification” for his arrest.
The Legal Agenda’s Executive Director Nizar Saghieh told The Daily Star Sunday that a broad interpretation of the law had been applied to enable Asmar’s detention.
“If someone reads [Asmar’s comments] without an instinctive reaction, we can say that it is somebody who is criticizing the public discourse that took place after the death of Patriarch Sfeir,” Saghieh said.
“From this perspective, there is no defamation, no penalty, no criminal offense ... just somebody expressing his opinion about the discourse,” he added.
However, the judicial source said Asmar was detained because his remarks insulted Sfeir, a prominent religious figure. The source added that Asmar and “everyone the investigation shows as an accomplice” would face legal action Monday and would then be referred to the investigative judge. Qabalan declined to say which legal articles Asmar’s detention was based on.
The source said Asmar could have been detained for inciting sectarian strife, insulting a religious position or other offenses that the prosecutors may find the comments applicable to.
Lawyer Antoine Sfeir, a relative of the late patriarch, told local news channel LBCI Sunday that Asmar’s detention was justified because his comments could have caused “strife” by sparking “public agitation.”
But Executive Director of SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom Ayman Mhanna said that Asmar’s comments, although insulting, should not result in his detention.
“Detaining him is not proportionate to anything he said,” Mhanna said, adding that disciplinary action by Asmar’s employers or union could be an appropriate response, instead of detention or imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch’s acting Middle East Director Lama Fakih said Lebanon’s current laws criminalized defamation and incitement of sectarianism. However, she said HRW had called for decriminalizing these laws, so offenders would face civil penalties instead of criminal ones. “These laws infringe upon Lebanon’s obligations under international laws and infringe on free expression,” Fakih said.
Although Fakih said she wasn’t familiar with Asmar’s comments, she noted an uptick in the enforcement of these laws in recent years, which she said had impacted freedom of expression in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Asmar’s comments faced scathing indictments from public officials. Premier Saad Hariri Sunday condemned the “ugly ... attack on the soul of Lebanon’s patriarch” at a Future Movement iftar event.
“As a Muslim and during Ramadan, I felt the insult just like my Maronite brothers, and maybe more. As a Lebanese, I felt ashamed that people think this way in my country,” Hariri said.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai also blasted the “terrible abuse” of his predecessor during a Mass at Bkirki earlier in the day that was attended by a number of Christian ministers and MPs.
In televised remarks after a meeting with Rai, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said, “Asmar’s words are evidence of a moral problem and moral degeneration.” He also declared a boycott of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers until its representatives “conducted a necessary review” of the situation.
Economy Minister Mansour Bteich announced in a tweet that his ministry would terminate its contract with Asmar, who works at Beirut Port’s silos. Since the comments circulated, at least 10 trade unions announced that they had suspended their membership in the GCLW until Asmar resigned.
A representative of Lebanon’s independent unions declared Saturday that the 10 unions didn’t feel represented by the confederation in light of Asmar’s comments.