LGBTQ ac­tivists de­fi­ant af­ter crack­down

Con­fer­ence or­ga­niz­ers see pat­tern in at­tempts by au­thor­i­ties to pre­vent such events

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: It is be­com­ing a fa­mil­iar story in Le­banon: LGBTQ rights ac­tivists or­ga­nize an event, a con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious group com­plains and then gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties stage a crack­down.

Last Fri­day, the Arab Fed­er­a­tion for Free­dom and Equal­ity, a Le­banon-based group fo­cused on LGBTQ and gen­der is­sues, kicked off its an­nual con­fer­ence, which is at­tended by about 100 guests from Arab and non-Arab coun­tries, at a ho­tel in Broum­mana. This was the sixth year the group had or­ga­nized the NEDWA con­fer­ence, which draws par­tic­i­pants from around the re­gion to dis­cuss is­sues re­lated to gen­der and sex­u­al­ity.

That same night, the Mus­lim Schol­ars Coun­cil, an as­so­ci­a­tion of Sunni re­li­gious lead­ers, posted a state­ment on so­cial me­dia de­cry­ing the con­fer­ence as pro­mot­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and call­ing on Le­banese au­thor­i­ties to shut it down. The coun­cil de­scribed ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a crime that “threat­ens so­ci­ety, moral val­ues, pub­lic health and the struc­ture of Le­banese fam­i­lies,” and com­pared the con­fer­ence to an ef­fort to pro­mote drug use or other crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Ge­orges Azzi, the AFE’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said the event or­ga­niz­ers saw the state­ment and laughed it off. But ev­i­dently the au­thor­i­ties were not laugh­ing.

Azzi said of­fi­cers from Gen­eral Se­cu­rity showed up at the con­fer­ence Satur­day af­ter­noon. They first in­quired about the pro­gram, then asked for the par­tic­i­pants’ pass­ports and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments and fi­nally or­dered the or­ga­niz­ers and the ho­tel to end the event.

The or­ga­niz­ers re­fused and in­stead scram­bled to find an­other ho­tel to host the rest of the con­fer­ence, which they were able to do, Azzi said.

“We de­cided that the con­fer­ence should be in Le­banon be­cause Le­banon of­fers a free space ... a space that is not avail­able in any other coun­try in the re­gion,” he said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day. “But it’s clear that this space is dis­solv­ing day by day.”

In May 2017, the open­ing event of Beirut Pride Week, the first gay pride event to be cel­e­brated in the Arab world, was can­celed amid threats of protests by the Mus­lim Schol­ars Coun­cil. An event to mark the In­ter­na­tional Day Against Ho­mo­pho­bia, Trans­pho­bia and Bi­pho­bia was can­celed un­der sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances.

LGBTQ events have also been shut down in the past be­cause of gov­ern­ment agen­cies’ in­ter­ven­tion. In a state­ment re­leased Thurs­day, Hu­man Rights Watch noted that this year the Le­banese In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Forces had briefly ar­rested one of Beirut Pride’s or­ga­niz­ers, Hadi Damien, and pres­sured him into sign­ing a state­ment call­ing off fu­ture Pride events. And in Au­gust, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity or­dered a ho­tel to shut down a work­shop or­ga­nized by the AFE, the group said.

“Gov­ern­ment dis­rup­tions of peace­ful hu­man rights ac­tiv­i­ties vi­o­late the rights to non-dis­crim­i­na­tion and free­dom of as­sem­bly, ex­pres­sion and as­so­ci­a­tion in a coun­try that has wit­nessed progress in the courts to­ward re­spect­ing the rights of [LGBTQ] peo­ple,” Hu­man Rights Watch said in its state­ment, re­fer­ring to a July rul­ing in a Le­banese dis­trict court of ap­peal that found that same-sex re­la­tions are not un­law­ful.

Azzi said Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials would not give a rea­son for shut­ting down last week’s event, but that he sus­pects it was con­nected to the Mus­lim Schol­ars Coun­cil’s com­plaint.

“If an NGO wants to or­ga­nize a con­fer­ence, does it have to get per­mis­sion from the Mus­lim Schol­ars?” he asked. “Who is it that rules the coun­try?”

A spokesman for Gen­eral Se­cu­rity did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Mus­lim Schol­ars Coun­cil could not be reached. But the group has po­lit­i­cal clout: The ISF Tues­day pub­lished a pic­ture on its web­site of the agency’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral, Maj. Gen. Imad Oth­man, re­ceiv­ing a del­e­ga­tion from the coun­cil at his of­fice.

Sa­har Man­dour, a re­searcher with Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, said the pat­tern in which the Mus­lim Schol­ars Coun­cil com­plains and an event is sub­se­quently shut down has be­come “a bit rou­tine.”

“And this is some­thing not ac­cept­able, be­cause the Mus­lim Schol­ars [Coun­cil] has the free­dom to refuse ac­tiv­i­ties and to pro­mote a coun­try as they dream of it, and all of the civil or­ga­ni­za­tions have the right to pro­mote an­other kind of coun­try, as they en­vi­sion it.” she said. “The gov­ern­ment’s job is to pro­tect the pub­lic space.”

She also drew par­al­lels be­tween the at­tempted shut­down of the con­fer­ence and a re­cent crack­down on free­dom of ex­pres­sion more gen­er­ally. Man­dour said that the crack­down on LGBTQ ac­tivism “is a piece of the broader in­fringe­ments on free­dom that we are see­ing in Le­banon,” in­clud­ing a string of re­cent de­ten­tions of ac­tivists and oth­ers for so­cial me­dia posts that crit­i­cized gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties.

“The at­mos­phere of free­dom in Le­banon is un­der pres­sure in more than one area,” she said.

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