The Daily Star (Lebanon)

LGBTQ activists defiant after crackdown

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

- 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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