An upsurge of violence in Lebanon’s protests against the ruling elite, with police meting out beatings and protesters hurling stones, has alarmed rights groups and whipped up public fury.
After a brief lull in largely peaceful protests since October, people filled the streets this week, angry at a political class that steered Lebanon to its worst economic crisis since a 1975-1990 civil war.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, police wielding batons and firing tear gas wounded and arrested dozens as protesters lit fires and smashed bank facades and ATMs, Reuters journalists saw.
“The past two nights they (police) were really barbaric,” said Cynthia Sleiman, a charity worker and protester who ended up in hospital after Wednesday night’s violence in Beirut.
“I just arrived and was looking for friends when the policeman grabbed me, hitting me on the head and neck. I fell to the ground and blood streamed out,” she said.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) said they were pursuing rioters and 100 policemen were injured. “Force members are suffering daily in the street,” ISF chief Imad Othman said on Thursday. “He is not a robot, he is a human.”
A security source said at least 80 protesters were injured in two days and 72 arrested. Many detained were expected to be released on Thursday
Since the protests led Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in October, politicians failed to agree a new cabinet or rescue plan for the heavily-indebted economy. The Lebanese pound lost nearly half its value, dollar shortages drive up prices and confidence in banks has collapsed.
Azza al-Masri, a media researcher injured on Wednesday, said she saw a woman faint after police beat her up. “The viciousness was unlike anything I’ve seen,” she said.
Activists believe police violence may indicate Lebanon’s establishment has lost patience with protesters and is stung by public wrath against banks, which curbed access to savings and blocked transfers abroad.
Human Rights Watch’s Beirut director Lama Fakih told Reuters the group was concerned at excessive force used by security forces amid rising frustrations. She said there was no “strong message” from government that police would be held responsible.
A Lebanese media group said 15 journalists were attacked on Wednesday. One was a Reuters video journalist, treated in hospital for head injuries and released.
On Thursday, lawyers, journalists and activists gathered at the interior ministry and the justice palace in Beirut to complain about police violence. Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan told reporters she had not ordered a clampdown and denounced attacks on media, while urging understanding for police.