Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 March 2020

Lebanon releases protesters detained after clashes

Anger at security forces over widespread detentions

Lebanon's security forces released most of the anti-government protesters detained after two nights of violent demonstrations in Beirut as hundreds more gathered outside parliament on Thursday to denounce the ruling class and delays in forming a new independent government.

Protesters also rallied in front of the Central Bank and interior ministry against the police use of force and caretaker interior minister Raya Hassan.

A committee of lawyers defending the demonstrators said 101 people had been detained, including 56 on Wednesday, with five minors among them.

"All those arrested have been released with the exception of seven foreigners" the committee announced on Facebook. The foreigners – six Syrians and an Egyptian – will be brought before authorities, it said.

Lebanese security forces announced 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.

Dozens more were arrested the following night when the protesters demonstrated outside the police headquarters in 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.

Amnesty International denounced 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 watchdog'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."

Bachir Abu Zeid was one of more than 50 protesters detained late on Wednesday outside the police station. He was pulled inside as he tried to help others who fell to the ground. He said he was kept in a small cell with 30 people overnight and was only allowed to call his family nearly six hours after he was taken in.

“We are expecting this. it is becoming more violent from them and us. They are not listening to people,” Mr Abu Zeid told Reuters after his release. “This repression will only make us stronger and give us momentum.”

An unprecedented nationwide movement of protests demanding an end to endemic corruption and the wholesale removal of Lebanon's political elite broke out nearly three months ago.

With little change in sight, protesters also angered by a financial crisis they blame on Lebanon's oligarchs and the central bank resumed their rallies with renewed determination Tuesday after a holiday lull.

Protesters vandalised several banks on the central Hamra street on Tuesday evening and hurled rocks at anti-riot police, who responded with volleys of tear gas canisters.

Gathered in front of the Central Bank again on Wednesday, the protesters then moved to a police station where some of their comrades had been detained the previous night, leading to clashes that left dozens lightly wounded.

Outgoing prime minister Saad Hariri resigned under pressure from the street less than two weeks into the wave of protests, but a new government has still not been formed despite a stark and growing economic crisis.

On Thursday, Mr Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil to discuss the financial crisis and upcoming debt maturities.

Lebanon is burdened with debts of almost $90 billion, or more than 150 per cent of GDP.

Over the past few months, the Lebanese pound – long pegged to the US dollar at 1,507 – has slumped in value on the unofficial market to about 2,500.

After a long search for a suitable candidate, former education minister and university professor Hassan Diab was nominated as premier and tasked with picking a new cabinet.

Protesters have demanded a government of technocrats excluding the household names that have symbolised Lebanon's sectarian-based politics for generations.

Local media reported a new cabinet could be named on Friday, after thorny government formation talks prolonged the process despite pressure from Lebanon's foreign partners and donors.

Updated: January 17, 2020 01:26 PM

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