Activists, journalist arrested in Lebanon after defying coronavirus lockdown

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Six activists and one journalist were arrested Thursday after the activists defied Lebanon’s lockdown order to stage a protest in front of a bank in one of Beirut’s busiest neighborhoods.

The Youth Movement for Change, a communist-leaning activist group, posted a video showing a small group of young people outside the Al-Mawarid Bank (AM Bank) on Hamra Street in west Beirut, some wearing surgical masks and some without, chanting, “down with the rule of the banks.” The group named six activists who had been arrested, along with journalist Mohammad Nazzal.

A second video showed the protesters clashing with another group of men outside the bank.

A number of demonstrations have been held throughout Lebanon in recent days, in defiance of the lockdown order, which banned public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The protests in violation of the order have been staged largely by residents of impoverished areas, including the northern city of Tripoli and Beirut’s southern suburbs, who say they are suffering as a result of the halted economic activity.

Read more: Coronavirus lockdown more harm than help for Lebanese who can't afford to stay home

Banks have been shuttered for more than two weeks since Lebanon’s countrywide lockdown began, although the government had specifically exempted banks from the order for businesses to close, saying they could remain open for essential functions.

Before the closure, banks had increasingly become targets of public ire due to the strict limits on dollar withdrawals, which have forced citizens who need to pay rent and bills in dollars to buy them at the inflated street exchange rate. While the official rate remains pegged at 1,507 lira to the dollar, the unofficial rate has risen as high as 2,800 to the dollar since the end of 2019. The banks closing has further exacerbated the situation.

The Alternative Journalists’ Union, a group formed out of the political uprising in Lebanon that began last October, issued a statement calling for the release of Nazzal and the activists.

“At a time when the world is heading toward reducing prison overcrowding, we see the Lebanese authority going in the opposite direction, as it launches arrest campaigns and puts the lives of citizens at risk of transmission of the virus through contact with them,” the statement said.

The statement noted that authorities had taken the opportunity of the quarantine to destroy an encampment that protesters had been occupying in downtown Beirut since October.

The union also made reference to a previous incident in which economic journalist Mohammad Zbeeb – a former colleague of Nazzal’s at Al Akhbar, a left-leaning newspaper that is generally supportive of Hezbollah – who was assaulted by a group of men in February after a speaking engagement.

Security forces later said three bodyguards of former Minister Marwan Kheireddine, who is the chairman of AM Bank, had carried out the attack, allegedly because they were angry with Zbeeb for his criticisms of Kheireddine. Kheireddine was not directly implicated in the attack.

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