Lebanon: Gay Web Site Leads to Harassment, Intimidation, and Threats of Arrest

Lebanese police have twice entered the premises of a major Beirut Internet service provider, detaining and harassing its personnel and summoning its general manager for interrogation-all in an attempt to extract the identities of persons who run a gay Lebanese Web site. These persons are apparently targeted for prosecution. IGLHRC and MIRSAD--Multi-Initiative on Rights: Search, Assist, and Defend, an established Lebanese human rights organization --call for letters to protest these blatant threats to the

On Monday, April 3, 2000, in Beirut, Lebanon, two plainclothes police officers from the vice squad ("police des moeurs") entered the offices of Destination, a major Lebanese Internet service provider. The officers had no search warrant . However, they identified themselves as acting under instructions from the Beirut prosecutor, Mr. Joseph Maamari, to collect information on the persons or persons who financed or installed a website at a specific Internet IP address. The web page at this address had content related to the Lebanese gay community, with chat spaces as well as information on the need for legal reform. Police identified the content of the site as subjecting the owners to prosecution. It was not clear under what law they would be prosecuted.

Police ordered the employees of Destination not to make any outgoing phone calls during their visit. After interrogating Destination's technical personnel, they confiscated the personal identity card of a senior staff member, Mr. Ziad Mugraby--Destination's general manager-- and ordered him to appear at at the Hobaich police station, near the American University of Beirut, the following day for further interrogation.

Following the departure of the officers, Destination staff alerted a lawyer for the ISP. The attorney contacted the head of the vice squad, a police colonel. The colonel's response to the attorney indicated that he believed that Destination was "broadcasting" immoral films. The lawyer attempted to explain to the colonel basic principles of the Internet, including the difference between the web and a broadcasting service.

The next day, Mr. Mugraby, accompanied by one of Destination's lawyers, went to the Hobaich police station. One of the officers who had entered Destination's offices, a captain, interrogated Mr. Mugraby further. Part of the interrogation was conducted in a threatening and offensive manner, and without permitting the lawyer to attend. It emerged during the interrogation that the particular web site pursued by the police belonged to a group based outside Lebanon and was hosted in the United States. Destination had nothing to do with the site that offended the police.

On the morning of Monday, April 17, 2000, Mr. Mugraby was summoned for the second time to the Hobeish police station. The vice squad officers brought a consultant from the police headquarters, Major Jacques Bakayev, as a technology information expert to interrogate Mr. Mugraby. Police threatened that, unless they received information about the names and whereabouts of the owners of the IP address, Destination would be shut down by order of the Beirut prosecutor. Prosecutors, the human rights organization MIRSAD states, have no such power under Lebanese law.

The police finally released Mr. Mugraby. He and Destination were given a deadline to reconsider and provide the information required.

The Lebanese penal code criminalizes "unnatural" sexual acts, and the Lebanese justice system is, according to MIRSAD, "generally unsympathetic to gays." However, homosexuality is not a crime per se in Lebanon. To the contrary: the free expression of opinion, whether on behalf of the gay community or of any other group--as well as the freedom of any group to associate--is protected both by the Lebanese constitution and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

IGLHRC and MIRSAD deplore the actions of police in harassing Destination, and entering its offices and detaining personnel without a proper warrant. Both IGLHRC and MIRSAD deplore as well the manifest intent of this harassment. The police actions were part of a long-standing pattern of hostility not only to gay and lesbian communities, but to freedoms of expression and association in general. In invading the offices of Destination, Beirut police and prosecutors declared their readiness to interfere, by legal and extralegal means, with access to and expression over the Internet.

Indeed, MIRSAD expresses particular concern that this action may mark the beginning of a general campaign to institute censorship in Lebanon, camouflaged behind an attack against a relatively weak and marginalized group. According to MIRSAD, rumors have been circulating in Beirut about a new Internet "backbone," or network hub, allegedly to be established in the near future, and to be based in Damascus, Syria. All Lebanese Internet connections and traffic would thus be routed through Syria--which already exerts a powerful military and political influence on Lebanese affairs.

Recently, the Syrian telecommunications authority announced its intent to install a sophisticated Internet monitoring system, and actually issued a public tender for its installation. According to the conditions of the tender, the system will monitor content of all Internet traffic, including e-mail traffic, and will identify the users, supplying their names, addresses, and whereabouts to police and/or intelligence units. (Human Rights Watch reports that a representative of the state-directed Syrian Computer Society explained in 1999 that any Internet use in Syria--and presumably also in Syrian-controlled territory--must "not disrupt the social structure or adversely affect the middle class," and "should not jeopardize Syrian independence or security concerns.") MIRSAD fears that a general crackdown on Internet expression is impending in Lebanon. Protest letters are urgently required to dissuade Lebanese authorities from infringing the basic right to freedom of speech, and from enforcing discrimination against a stigmatized minority.

ACTION:

Please send letters and/or faxes to the following officials of the Republic of Lebanon:

Emile Lahoud,
President of the Republic,
+961-5-451217,
opendoor@presidency.gov.lb
Salim el Hoss,
Prime Minister,
+961-1-354.929,
marasem@pcm.gov.lb
Joseph Chaoul,
Minister of Justice,
+961-1-425670,
minister@justice.gov.lb,
justice2@justice.gov.lb
Ghazi Zeaiter,
Defense Minister,
+961-1-424161 & +961-5-951014,
cmdarm@lebarmy.gov.lb
Anwar Khalil,
Information Minister,
+961-1-342223
Riad Tabbarah,
Ambassador to the United Nations,
+1-202-939-6324,
The Lebanese Embassy or Consulate near you.

Please send copies of your letters to MIRSAD, at P.O. Box 11-6856, Beirut, LEBANON.

Suggested text:

Dear Mr. (Name)

On April 3, 2000, Lebanese police in Beirut attempted to intimidate a leading Lebanese Internet service provider, Destination, by unlawfully entering its Beirut offices. Police further attempted to extract information about the identities of members of a gay activist group that runs a web site-apparently with the intent of prosecuting those members.

These actions constitute a gross violation of human rights protected by the Lebanese constitution, as well as by international human rights covenants and standards. Homosexuality per se is not criminalized under Lebanese law and should not fall under the attention of the police des moeurs who investigate ordinary vice crimes. Moreover, it should not be within the purview of those police, or of any other public authority, to curtail the freedoms of expression and association exercised by adult persons via and on the internet. We strongly condemn and protest these violations. We call on the Lebanese government to ensure that such rights are fully respected and protected, and that the police officers, together with any of their superiors involved, are duly disciplined. All police and public officials should be instructed not to engage in or to allow such violations again.

Sincerely,

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

For more information, please see: Lebanon: Gay Web Site Leads to Harassment, Intimidation, and Threats of Arrest