BEIRUT: Following circulating news that Lebanese authorities had attempted to shut down NEDWA, an annual gender rights regional conference that had been set to take place in Beirut, a private press conference was organized by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) in Lebanon to shed light on the crackdown.
After abstaining from disclosing any information or making any official statements on their Facebook page, the AFE scheduled the press conference to share their ordeal in the presence of media correspondents and international human rights organization representatives, mainly Amnesty and the Human Rights Watch.
During the course of the hour-long press conference, they revealed that the organization brings together more than 100 activists from over 12 countries from the Middle East and North Africa on an annual basis to set and implement an agenda that pushes for equal human and gender rights.
While the annual NEDWA conference had been underway, it was interrupted by Lebanese General Security forces that interrogated the organizers for a few hours and confiscated the passports of attendees. After ongoing negotiations, security officers demanded the conference be shut down completely, a request that the organization refused to comply with and decided to relocate their conference to another venue instead. The general security also urged the head of the organization to sign an agreement vowing to cancel all upcoming activities and events, which he refused to do.
Despite the unforeseen circumstances that crippled the conference, organizers did manage to carry on as on as planned in the presence of different media representatives and human rights activists.
According to Maya Abdallah, Director of the AFE Media Center, this incident is not the first of its sort. The organization and its planned activities had been targeted by religious entities in previous years, which she explains are unjustified. Despite the orderly and systematic manner within which the organization functions, they were still accused of “promoting perversion and drug abuse” by the Association of Muslim Scholars, who had allegedly put up a Facebook post addressing the Interior Minister to take action on what may be advocating drug usage and homosexuality.
Despite General Security initially issuing the requisite visas to the attendees before taking action against the conference on empty unsupported claims, Abdallah explained that the association is usually targeted as it speaks out on feminism, gender equality, and sexuality. Despite Lebanon being considered one of the more liberal-leaning countries in the region, these topics are still considered relatively taboo.
“What happened at the conference is first and foremost an attack on the freedom of expression and assembly,” said Abdallah. “It’s purely an infringement on freedom of speech.”
On another note, George Azzi, the executive director at AFE affirmed the existence of human rights for freedom in Lebanon. However, this liberation seems to fade out by time. As an organization which goes behind the civil community, freedom of speech must be respected and he refuses to have as a reference anyone besides the government.
“The conference we held had a very clear agenda and all of the attendee’s visas passed by the general security first. All the papers were legal, they had no right in interfering and shutting it down, instead, it is their responsibility to protect us from all other organizations who try to perform any act of suppression,” he said.
During his speech, he called on all the participants to stand by AFE and support every association that works for the people and fights for their rights because "liberty is the only thing that is still present in Lebanon."
This is not the first intercession that AFE witnesses. It had already happened twice before, during the international day against homophobia, and during the Beirut Pride event when activists organized the first gay group to participate in a Marathon before raising the rainbow flag as a symbol to bring to an end the Lebanese sectarian system. The event was canceled after threats were made to the hotel, but the rest of the full-week program continued, including the release of Helem’s (the Middle East’s first LGBT organization) ad campaign calling for acceptance and non-discrimination of the LGBT community.
Rasha Mouawieh, a researcher at Amnesty, backed Azzi’s opinion and refreshed the audience’s memory on the several constitutional laws that protect the LGBT community; “the court declared that homosexuality is not against nature”, she said. She also touched on how these unjustified acts hurt Lebanon's tourism industry given that all all of these conferences are usually held in hotels, and it’s not appropriate to see the security forces interrogating its people under false allegations.
Almost all of the organizations who attended showed their full support to AFE during this press conference, in fact, the drug association’s speaker made sure that everyone knows that AFE, in particular, does not encourage this kind of behavior.
A number of participants inquired further on the crackdown by seeking clarifications on certain aspects of the incident, showing their support to the cause. However, a question by Donna Maria Nammour went unanswered, “The Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted a while ago saying that the media is responsible to guide public freedoms, but if that’s the case, then how come the Lebanese security forces don’t respect the above?”
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