Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Political Expression
Microtech Contracting Corp. v. Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York
Closed Expands Expression
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This case is available in additional languages: View in: العربية
The Individual Penal Judge in Beirut (the Court) dismissed criminal proceedings against members of the “Badna Nhasib” (We Want Accountability) movement for staging a protest relating to the 2015 garbage crisis in Lebanon. The defendants had gathered at the Ministry of the Environment to make a formal request to meet with the Minister to discuss the issue of the waste crisis as well as to inquire about the fate of complaints which they had previously submitted. While the group waited peacefully in the hallway for an answer, Security Forces arrived to handcuff, arrest and forcibly remove them from the Ministry. The Public Prosecutor brought charges based on Articles 346 and 347 of the Penal Code, claiming the gathering constituted a riot. After examining the facts of the case, the Court found that the defendants’ peaceful protest and refusal to leave the Ministry before receiving an answer to their request, did not fall within enumerated elements of a riot or disturbance stipulated in the penal code. Holding that the material elements of a crime were lacking, the Court dismissed the charges.
The defendants were members of the “Badna Nhasib” (We Want Accountability) movement, which was part of a range of civil society organizations that protested against the garbage crisis in Lebanon in 2015. The closure of a landfill during the summer of 2015 lead to the halting of waste collection services and garbage subsequently piled up in the streets. In response, demonstrations erupted against government corruption, calling for solutions to the unsanitary living conditions.
The “Badna Nhasib” defendants included Wassef Habib Al-Harakeh, Pierre Kalim Al-Hachach, Mohammed Nabil Adeis, Hady Nidal Menla, Hani Ramez Fayad, Sadek Ali Behloue, Waref Nasr Sleiman, Jad Bashir Al-Aridi, Ali Mohammed Hammoud, Khodor Issam Al-Anouar, Abdel Kader Salim Al-Bay, Samer Amin Hamed, Rashid Marwan Oseirat, Mohammed Ghassan Harb, and Hussein Mohammed Al-Mous.
The defendants and other protesters had gathered in downtown Beirut in front of the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon, where a Ministerial session was scheduled to take place. Upon learning that the Ministerial session had been postponed, the protestors moved on to the Ministry of Environment in response to media reports that the Minister of Environment invited persons affected by the waste crisis to go to his office to voice grievances and demands. The legal committee of the “Badna Nhasib” movement had previously submitted several judicial and administrative complaints before the competent ministries, i.e. the Ministry of Environment, Health and Industry, which had not been decided upon, either negatively or positively. Nor had they been informed of the status of their complaints at that time.
The defendants explained that upon their arrival on the eighth floor of the office of the Ministry of Environment, they first went to the office of the Head of the Department in compliance with relevant regulations, instead of going straight to the office of the Minister who was present in his office at the time. The defendants formally requested to meet with the Minister to discuss the issue of the waste crisis as well as inquire about the fate of the complaints which they had previously submitted. The Head of the Department asked them to wait in the hallway while she talked to the Minister. They waited peacefully and quietly, without any quarreling, yelling insults or threats, or any acts that could be considered to violate security or fall under the framework of a riot.
According to defendant Wassef Al-Harakeh, ten minutes after speaking with the Head of the Department, the lights were turned off and the exits were closed. The Head of the Department was instructed to leave by the Security Forces who came and informed the defendants that a decision had been made to forcibly remove them from the hallway. The defendant Al-Harakeh informed the Security Forces that they were awaiting the Minister’s decision on their request for a meeting, and in the case of his refusal, they would leave. The Security Forces, rather than asking them to leave calmly, handcuffed them and then forcibly removed them from the building. Al-Harakeh further claimed that they couldn’t have possibly have assaulted anyone since they were outnumbered and handcuffed.
The Prosecutor claimed the defendants conducted a sit-in protest at the Ministry of Environment which resulted in overcrowding in a public place, sufficient to be considered a riot, which is punishable by imprisonment from one month to one year. The Public Prosecutor argued that the defendants failed to follow the orders of the Security Forces to exit the building, and thus had to be forcibly removed. Further, defendants who were arrested and brought to the Al-Helo Barracks building, allegedly stood in front of the vehicle that transported them and held onto it, causing a stampede and an outbreak of violence that led to injuries.
The Public Prosecutor initiated proceedings against defendants based on Articles 346 and 347 of the Lebanese Penal Code.
Article 346 of the Penal Code states that
“Every crowd or procession on public roads or in a place permitted to the public is considered a riot and punishable by imprisonment ranging from one month to one year: if it consisted of three or more people with the intention of committing a crime or misdemeanor and at least one of them was armed, if it consisted of at least seven people with the intention of protesting against a decision or measure taken by the public authorities with the intention of pressuring them, or if the number of people amounted to twenty and appears to disturb the general peace.”
Article 347 of the Penal Code states that
“If people gather in a way, and are warned to disperse by a representative of the administrative authority, or an officer of the judicial police, he shall announce his coming if the circumstances require a drum beating or blowing in the trumpet or whistle or by any other similar method. Those who act before the authority’s warning or immediately comply with its warning without using their weapons or committing any other misdemeanor shall be exempt from the penalty imposed above.”
Judge Abir Safa delivered the judgement of the Individual Penal Judge Court in Beirut. The main issue before the Court was whether the sit-in protest the defendants participated in at the Ministry of Environment, threatened public order and safety.
The Individual Penal Judge in Beirut recalled that the crimes stipulated in Article 346 of the Penal Code are achieved if people gather with the intent to commit a crime or misdemeanor, and at least one of them was armed, or if they are protesting against a decision or measure made by the public authorities with the intention of pressuring them, or if the gathering threatens public order.
After reviewing the facts of the case, the Judge found that the material elements necessary to constitute the aforementioned crime, were not present in this particular gathering. According to the defendants, their purpose for gathering at the Ministry was to discuss practical solutions to the waste crisis in Lebanon which was threatening citizens’ health, environment, and daily lives. The Court noted that the defendants’ gathering at the Ministry of Environment was absolutely peaceful and did not fall under the conditions mentioned in Article 346 of the Penal Code, and that the defendants did not refuse to leave the premises but simply demanded that their request for a meeting be answered, even if it was rejected.
Reference made to the above, the Court revoked the proceedings attributed to the defendants, and judged in maintaining all legal expenses, meaning that the defendants didn’t have to pay any legal expenses since the Public Prosecutor is the one who brought the case before the Court.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The importance of this decision by the Individual Penal Judge in Beirut doesn’t lie in acquitting the defendants based on the absence of moral and material elements of the crime mentioned in Articles 346 and 347 of the Penal Code, but in limiting the Public Prosecutor from abusing its jurisdiction to go after activists. The Court restricted the Prosecutor’s interpretation of vague terms and clauses in the penal code, since the Court wasn’t able to base its decision on the right to freedom of expression and assembly which had not been invoked.
It is also important to note that the timing of the decision (December 30, 2019) was significant as it came during the country’s largest known demonstrations. It effectively upheld the principle of freedom of expression especially when many activists had been summoned for investigation and were even unlawfully arrested for protesting against the current government and the ruling political parties and their methods of governance.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Articles 346 and 347
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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