Police attempted to shut down a conference on LGBTQ rights in Lebanon after Beirut Pride Week was forced to cancel earlier this year.
On Friday, authorities with the General Security office pressured organizers with NEDWA — an annual gathering organized by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) — to immediately close up shop. According to Human Rights Watch, police interrogated AFE executive director Georges Azzi and tried to compel him to “sign a pledge to cease any activities related to the conference.”
“When Azzi refused, the officers ordered the hotel to shut down the conference,” the international advocacy organization claimed in a statement.
OutRight International further claimed intelligence officers collected the names of everyone in attendance and made photocopies of their passports. Although Azzi initially refused to cease NEDWA’s programming, authorities briefly succeeded in halting the event after speaking with the hotel’s management.
In a statement released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch called the shutdown an “attack on freedom of assembly rights and an attempt to silence the voices of courageous activists.”
“Trying to intimidate NEDWA organizers and activists working in challenging circumstances throughout the Middle East and North Africa violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law,” claimed Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
OutRight International, which advocates for global LGBTQ rights, added that this is just the latest attack on queer and trans organizers in Lebanon.
“In spite of 10 years of positive court decisions, there have been several attacks on the basic rights of the LGBTQ community’s freedom of association over the past year,” said Executive Director Jessica Stern in a statement.
Although Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code penalizes same-sex intercourse with up to one year behind bars, courts have increasingly ruled in favor of LGBTQ rights.
Following a series of favorable lower court decisions, a Metn court issued a decisive ruling against the colonial-era sodomy law in 2017. Acquitting nine individuals prosecuted under Article 534, District Court Judge Rabih Maalouf claimed in a written opinion, “Homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense.”
A Mount Lebanon appeals court upheld the ruling a year later.
But as advocates noted, these court decisions — while historic and unprecedented in the region — did not serve to stop police from persecuting the LGBTQ community.
This week’s scene was extremely similar to what transpired in May when police arrested Pride Week organizer Hadi Damien and coerced him into shutting down the nine-day festival, which was first held in 2017. Officials with the Internal Security Forces threatened him with a prison sentence of up to two years should he refuse to do so.
Following consultation from his lawyer, Damien agreed to shut down Pride Week.
Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher in its LGBTQ rights program, explained that the 2018 court decision “does not establish a binding precedent” under Lebanese civil law. Other benches still have the ability to imprison anyone accused of violating Article 534, should they elect to do so.
In addition, authorities often target LGBTQ advocacy under vague laws prohibiting “offenses against public decency.” In the case of NEDWA, police accused the event of “incitement to immorality.”
Officials with General Security did not cite any actions in particular which generated their claims. But according to Human Rights Watch, representatives with the Muslim Scholars Association had publicly accused the conference of “promoting homosexuality and drug abuse.”
Human rights organizations are calling on Lebanese authorities to ensure the safety of future LGBTQ events in Lebanon as the nation moves toward a full repeal of Article 534.
“The crackdown on a conference of LGBTQ rights activists is a step backward that threatens activists not just in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” Fakih claimed. “[…] The Lebanese authorities should be assisting, not preventing, activists from working together toward regional solutions.”
But even in spite of opposition from authorities, the conference soldiered through. Organizers with NEDWA found another hotel to host the remainder of the conference.
Azzi said LGBTQ groups would continue to fight for their space in Lebanese society.
“These kinds of attacks are expected, there is no activism without risks, but we need to be more prepared, stay united, and help each other to stand up and continue the fight,” he claimed in a statement.