Lebanon’s security forces have released most of the more than 100 anti-government protesters arrested after two nights of violent encounters between police and demonstrators in the capital, Beirut.
While the months-long protest movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators clashed with security forces on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a committee of lawyers defending demonstrators saying 101 people had been arrested, including 56 on Wednesday, with five minors among them.
The lawyers’ committee announced on Facebook on Thursday that “all those arrested have been released with the exception of seven foreigners”.
The detained foreigners – six Syrians and an Egyptian – will be brought before authorities, the committee added.
Protesters gathered again in Beirut on Thursday evening in front of the Central Bank and interior ministry, where several hundred demonstrators denounced police use of force and outgoing Minister of the Interior Raya al-Hassan.
Lebanese security forces announced that 59 people were arrested on suspicion of vandalism and assault on Tuesday when protesters angered by stringent informal capital controls attacked banks in central Beirut.
“Under popular pressure, the detained have been released two days after a hysterical crackdown,” Nizar Saghieh, who heads the Legal Agenda non-governmental organisation, wrote on Twitter.
‘Vicious’ riot police
International human rights organisations have criticised the conduct of security forces, with Amnesty International denouncing what it said were “arbitrary arrests”.
“What we have witnessed in the past couple of days is an alarming attack on freedom of assembly and expression,” said the group’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf.
“Acts by a minority of protesters who vandalised banks or threw stones is never a justification for such excessive use of force and sweeping arrests by law enforcement.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior and Municipalities to “promptly hold law enforcement officers accountable for using excessive force,” saying riot police had beaten protesters and media workers.
“The unacceptable level of violence against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters on January 15 calls for a swift independent and transparent investigation,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
“The vicious riot police attack on media workers doing their jobs is an egregious violation of security force obligations to abide by human rights standards.”
Interior minister al-Hassan said in a tweet that she condemned the attacks on journalists, and that accountability proceedings were already under way. She later told reporters that, while the attacks were not justified, riot police were tired after months of protests.
Protesters have taken to the streets since October to demand an end to corruption among Lebanon’s ruling elite and an overhaul of the confessional political system, where power is apportioned among ethnic and sectarian groups.
Lebanon has been without a government since October 29, when the cabinet resigned under pressure from the protest movement.
A former education minister and university professor Hassan Diab was nominated as a new prime minister last month and tasked with forming a new cabinet, but demonstrators have called for a government of independent technocrats to steer the country through its economic crisis.
Local media reported that a new cabinet could be named on Friday, while caretaker Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil said on Thursday that politicians were “on the doorstep of forming a new government”.