For two weeks, Wafika Hachem sat on the pavement outside the military court in Beirut. To pass some of the time, she talked with another mother of one of the men detained inside, picking purple Bougainvillea leaves from the low hanging bushes nearby, while around them protesters demanded the release of more than two dozen young men rounded up by security forces.
But mostly, Hachem sat alone, nervously wringing her hands, waiting in the hot sun for news of her son, Ali.
“There are no human rights in Lebanon,” she said without tearing her eyes away from a gap in the newly erected razor wire surrounding the court. It was through this small gap that the lawyers of those accused would appear with news from inside. Around it, the families of those detained would either scream and cry as the news was relayed to them, or grab their chests and sigh in relief.
Ali Hachem was one of 35 protesters picked up by Internal Security Forces in Lebanon on the 31st January following protests in the northern city of Tripoli that culminated in the torching of the municipality building. Molotov cocktails were thrown at security forces and, according to the police, a hand grenade was launched by protesters during clashes, as anger over the deteriorating state of the economy spilled onto the streets. Lebanon has been hit by successive crises over the past year, compounded by a massive explosion in the port of Beirut last summer that killed around 211 people and left thousands injured.
Military Tribunal Prosecutor Fadi Akiki charged Ali and the other men under the Domestic Terrorist Act and article 335 of the criminal code for their alleged involvement in what he said were the premeditated acts of a terrorist gang. The charges ranged from throwing stones to burning down the municipality building. Charges brought under the terrorism act in Lebanon carry the death penalty.
It is part of what activists in Lebanon describe as growing pressure from security forces and those loyal to the country’s ruling political parties since the protest movement began over a year ago. A prominent critic of Hezbollah, the most powerful political and paramilitary force in Lebanon, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the UK and USA, was found dead in a car last month. The perpetrators have yet to be identified.
Meanwhile, prosecutions with limited rights to appeal, lengthy pre-trial detentions, unlawful use of force by security forces, interrogations without the presence of a lawyer and civilian trials in the military court have all been documented in Lebanon.
The use of a military court to try civilians has been condemned by Amnesty International. In a recent report, the organisation cited the use of the court as a disproportionate way to punish those already suffering from the rising cost of food in the midst of an economic meltdown, strict lockdown measures and shortages in basic services.
Ayman Raad, the defence lawyer representing Ali Hachem and five of the men charged, told VICE World News he believed the charges had been brought as a warning to those who were continuing to protest.
“The Lebanese authorities’ oppressive and disproportionate use of terrorism-related charges to prosecute protesters marks an alarming escalation in their repression and is clearly intended to instil fear and deter protests,” Raad said.
“The charges are total nonsense,” he added. “There has to be pre-meditated conspiracy to commit a felony with a terrorist intention.”
On Sunday the 31st of January, Ali’s street in Jdita seemed unusually quiet. While chopping wood alone outside his home, Ali was picked up by the ISF without an arrest warrant and taken to the Secret Intelligence Office in the nearby town of Chtoura.
Three days earlier, he had been sitting at home in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border, watching on television as protests erupted 75 miles away in Tripoli. After witnessing what he believed was police brutality that led to the death of Omar Tayba after he was shot in the back by the ISF on the 27th January, Ali decided to join the protests.
According to Ali, on the evening the municipality building was burned down two days later, he was lying on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Tripoli with other protesters from the Beqaa Valley. Just before curling up to sleep for the night, the friends took a selfie. Ali believes it was this harmless selfie that caused him and his friends to spend 36 days in jail.
The following morning they woke up to find their names circulating in WhatsApp groups, accusing them of being behind the destruction of property.
Now, he found himself blindfolded and handcuffed facing charges of terrorism. The men were slapped in the face on multiple occasions, according to Ali. He was taken to the ministry of defence in Baabda on the outskirts of Beirut where the interrogation continued. Ayman Raad told VICE World News that these interrogations had been conducted without a lawyer present, contrary to Article 47 of Lebanese Law.
Five days after his detention, Ali was moved to the Rihanye Military Prison where he would spend the next 31 days. His head and beard were shaved, and he was confined to a tiny cell.
He shared this space with his friend, Ali Haybii, and the men were only allowed out for two minutes to smoke in the prison’s underground yard. The pressure and uncertainty soon began to get to Ali and his friends.
Omar Bekai, 26, quickly lost weight in prison and began to shake. He developed anxiety and was prescribed Xanax. To calm his own nerves, Ali found comfort in the Agatha Christie novel The Unexpected Guest – an ironic choice for a man who did not expect to find himself in a military prison wondering if he would be sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, five miles away at Beirut’s Military Tribunal Court protesters had begun to gather. Word had spread of the men’s arrest and people came from Tripoli, the Beqaa Valley and beyond to stand in solidarity with the men inside. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) began blocking the road around the court with razor wire and deployed water cannons to keep the protesters back. By the 24th of February, things had quietened down outside the court, but men and women still gathered under the midday sun, shouting demands that the men be released. Tempers flared so much that fights broke out amongst the supporters gathered on the street.
Over the four-week period, some of the men were released in an apparent effort to placate the protesters until only three of them remained in prison: Ali and his two friends Ali Haybii and Rabeh Shemaly. However, this was not enough to stop the protesters from marching through the streets of Beirut burning tyres and overturning dumpsters under the ever-present and watchful eye of the army.
The men only learned of their impending release after Ali Heiby made his weekly phone call to his mother.
A small group of family and friends waited all day, and into the night, near the prison in Baabda for the three men to be released. As the cold night descended the group made jokes, drank energy drinks and took it in turns to run to the local sandwich shop to keep their spirits high.
At 9PM, Shemaly was reunited with his friends. They held him on their shoulders as he shouted the ubiquitous protests songs into the cold night with an air of defiance.
At around midnight on the 8th of March, 36 days after they were picked up, Ali Hachem and Ali Haybii were reunited with their mothers and friends.
“It felt like a dream,” said Ali. “After two days inside, you feel like an animal.”
As the men walked home, they heard the honking of horns from behind as their friends caught up with them on the road. Ali hugged his mother and hasn’t left her side since.
Despite his ordeal, Ali sees it as a sign those in power are losing control and credibility and believes the movement should continue.
“This is the price of demanding freedom.”