BEIRUT (Ma’an) — A prominent civil rights activist who was detained by Lebanese army investigators for 14 hours has spoken about her experience, accusing authorities of disproportionate action against perceived pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Farah Kobeissi, 23, was accused of seeking to ferment civil unrest after her one-woman protest outside the northern refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared was forcibly stopped by soldiers.
“I went to go to the camp, as I usually do, to visit a friend. There is a military situation at the camp and you have to pass through army checkpoints where they search you,” Kobeissi told Ma’an.
“I went to it and gave them my documents, because I didn’t have my ID on me. I have done this lots of times before without a problem but I was told it was no longer acceptable to use these documents.
“This was an official paper and it permits me to go anywhere, even in official offices and ministries. They told me, offensively, that it was a decision from a high-ranking army official. It made me very angry as it was against my freedom of movement and was a military and security measure against all in the camp and all its visitors. I had to do something,” she said.
Incensed, Kobeissi went to a nearby newsagents and bought an improvised banner. She then sat down in front of the camp and held aloft the slogan, “No to humiliating permits in Nahr Al-Bared.”
One of Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camps, Nahr Al-Bared was almost totally destroyed in fierce fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam gunmen in 2007. More than 50 civilian refugees were killed in the violence and up to 95 percent of the camp’s buildings were razed.
Reports of the Lebanese army blocking regeneration efforts in the camp have been springing up ever since. Last week, a journalist was detained for three weeks by military investigators for an article published in a Lebanese newspaper alleging that heavy army presence was wantonly blocking NGO efforts to improve living conditions in Nahr Al-Bared.
Kobeissi was accosted by soldiers minutes after beginning her solo demonstration.
“An officer wanted in any way to remove this slogan from me, as if it was an absolute threat,” she said. “I didn’t let it go and said I wasn’t moving from my spot. He tried to take it off by force. He was ready to hit me in order to get it off me. They were totally afraid because of it. They are very scared of any protesting against any measures taken in Nahr Al-Bared. This is a huge problem. I cannot emphasize enough how they only saw the slogan in my hands.”
Kobeissi was transferred to Al-Qobbeh prison – the largest in north Lebanon – for questioning by army intelligence officers. The facility is notorious for mistreatment of inmates and the employment of harsh interrogation techniques.
“I heard someone in the next room calling in pain to God. I asked a soldier if he was sick and he told me, ‘You wish he was sick.’ I was told he was hung up like a sheep ready to be slaughtered. I wanted to ask why but another officer came, who was very aggressive. I stopped the discussion,” Kobeissi said.
“We had an unofficial discussion and all the time they were accusing me of doing an organized protest, that there were people pushing me to do it. They tried to accuse an activist friend of mine [inside the camp] of being involved in it.”
When it became clear that the army had no official grounds to continue her detention, Kobeissi claims officers fabricated evidence, arresting a Palestinian resident of Nahr Al-Bared – who happened to capture an image of the protest on his camera phone – and a passing Lebanese worker.
“They told me they had caught two people and said they organized the protest, even though I was alone. They were handcuffed together,” she said. “The army arrested a man who took a photo of me sitting in the street on his mobile. I was not allowed to see the men but when I did I told them that the army had nothing on any of us.”
It is not known exactly how many Palestinians are currently held in Lebanon’s overpopulated prisons, but several members of suspected militant groups operating inside camps are being detained, many still awaiting trial. Dozens of Palestinian nationals are serving death sentences for affiliation with Fatah Al-Islam and other banned groups.
Kobeissi said that although she was confident of her innocence, she did worry for the safety of the two male detainees.
“I was not so afraid because I hadn’t done anything wrong; they had no case against me at all. I didn’t attack anyone, I just expressed my opinion. From the start I asked for lawyer, which was refused, even though it was my right to have one.
“A man came who was really mean. He started yelling because he didn’t like my answers and ordered for me to be taken away,” Kobeissi added.
She managed to send a clandestine text message to an acquaintance, who soon started a social networking campaign on Facebook and Twitter to get her released; the hash tag #Farfahinne, Kobeissi’s Twitter username, was mentioned hundreds of times on the micro blogging site as her detention lengthened.
Kobeissi was finally freed upon the decision of a prosecuting judge. She said she hoped her ordeal would raise the profile of increasingly draconian measures restricting freedom of movement of residents and visitors in Nahr Al-Bared, as well as the plight of Lebanon’s more than 400,000 Palestinians.
“If I am a Lebanese citizen, I am privileged compared to a Palestinian in Lebanon. If I am treated like this can you imagine how the army treats every Palestinian each day?” she said.
“I would do it again but not only me. I don’t regret this experience because it taught me a lot. I already knew the mentality of a military person but when it happens to you it’s a different emotion. They should not be governing civilians like this.”