Officers from the security forces in Lebanon have tried to force the closure of an LGBT rights conference, reports Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The organisation was among the participants at NEDWA, a conference organised by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), a group that works to advance LGBT and other human rights.
On September 29, late on the conference’s third day, officers from General Security, an intelligence branch of the Lebanese security forces, arrived at the hotel where the conference was being held and questioned AFE executive director Georges Azzi.
According to HRW, they ordered him to cancel the conference and sign a pledge to cease any activities related to the conference. When Azzi refused, the officers ordered the hotel to shut down the conference. General Security officers also took details of all participants from the hotel registry, including those from highly repressive countries such as Egypt and Iraq.
AFE, which is an officially registered NGO, was forced to move the conference to a different hotel for its final day.
“General Security’s latest efforts to shut down an LGBT conference in Lebanon is an attack on freedom of assembly rights and an attempt to silence the voices of courageous activists,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
“Trying to intimidate NEDWA organisers and activists working in challenging circumstances throughout the Middle East and North Africa violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law.”
The four-day conference, which included workshops on issues such as human rights, advocacy, movement-building, health, and the arts, has taken place annually in Beirut since 2013 and includes people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
The General Security Forces’actions followed public statements from the Muslim Scholars Association accusing NEDWA organisers of promoting homosexuality and drug abuse. The association called for the organisers’ arrest and the cancellation of the conference on the grounds of “incitement to immorality.”
Lebanese government interference has previously put a stop to human rights events around gender and sexuality in the name of “preserving public morality.” In May, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces blocked Beirut Pride celebrations from going ahead, midway through the nine-day festival.
Censorship bureau officials and security and vice police arrived at a public reading of a play and demanded that it be stopped. The organiser of Pride, Hadi Damien, was arrested in handcuffs and detained overnight.
In July, a district court of appeal issued a groundbreaking ruling that same-sex conduct is not unlawful, dismissing charges under article 534 of the Penal Code, which criminalises “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” and provides for sentence of up to one year in prison. The appeals court judge denounced the law’s intrusion in people’s private lives and declared that homosexuality is not “unnatural.”
“The crackdown on a conference of LGBT rights activists is a step backward that threatens activists not just in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” Fakih said. “In a region where dozens have been killed and hundreds arrested due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the Lebanese authorities should be assisting, not preventing, activists from working together toward regional solutions.”