October 8, 2015 marked the most violent clashes between protesters and the Lebanese security forces since late August, leaving many injured and arrested. Protesters in relatively smaller numbers gathered in Martyrs’ Square near the Annahar newspaper building by a roadblock set up by the security forces. Their goal? To get to Nejmeh Square near the parliament building, which they have been barred access from for years. What surprised us was how quickly the police resorted to water canons, tear gas, and physical attacks compared to previous protests. Activists were not violent, but the security forces began arresting them as they took apart parts of the barricade. By midnight, the riot police outnumbered the protesters, and rounded up whoever was left, including Hassan. The 22 year-old college student is also a photographer who volunteers for You Stink’s media committee. Many were surprised when he announced on Twitter that he was arrested, badly beaten, and sitting in a police van.
We spoke to Hassan about his arrest and his three days in prison.
I was going back and forth from Martyrs’ Square to Paul [café] where the media volunteers had an improvised media station set up to upload pictures and videos. After Paul closed for the night, my friends joined me at Martyrs’ Square. At this point, it just felt like any other night: teargas, water canons, that sort of thing. It’s a normal night. While I was videotaping the clashes, Assad [Thebian] came up to us and said that it’s likely that the police will round of the remaining protesters because there’s only a few left, and that we should go to the Helou prison to demand the release of the others.
And just like that. Five minutes after he said that, the police started to close in on us. The riot police swarmed in like an army; there were about 200 or 300 of them. At the time, I’d say there were less than 150 protesters. The police came out of nowhere from near the Le Gray [Hotel]. Some people who ran into the Gemmayze area were also met with police positioned there.
My friends and I were surrounded. I’m not a registered photographer, which means that I’m prone to getting hurt regardless of whether I threw rocks at them or not. We all ran, and it was ‘every man for himself’ at that point. I told my friends to run with me to my car. We got in and we immediately locked the doors. The police chased us and demanded that we get out of the car. A few seconds after telling us, they started damaging the car. The glass on the back window completely shattered. My friend sitting in the back had glass all over him, but wasn’t injured. The front lights were broken too; it looked like they were hitting the car with batons.
I have been arrested and badly beaten with my friends Mohamad Mgharbil and wissam Assaf
— Hassan Cha. (@c_ha93) October 8, 2015
I told them that I’m a photographer. They asked for my photography license. After telling them that I don’t have one, they literally dragged me out of the car and started beating me. For the first period they covered my head with a black sack, and would repeatedly put it off and on. I don’t know why, maybe to intimidate me and keep me from trying to resist. I don’t know.
I had a friend who was on the ground and they still beat him. I started yelling at them as they dragged me to a police van, telling them I’m a photographer but I just don’t have a license, that I’m peaceful and I didn’t throw a rock. They kept hitting me. I was punched in the stomach several times and hit on my legs with batons. The latter was the most painful – I was limping for a couple of days. They took me to their superior and told them “Sir, we caught him! He was throwing rocks at us!” Their superior then punched me.
I was even head-butted by a riot police officer with his helmet on, and got a straight punch to the face between my nose and eye. I was bleeding. They then took me to another superior and told him the same thing. He then would tell them not to hit me, knowing that there were still journalists and photographers in the area. I told him that they hit me, and it was clear that they did because I was bleeding and my eye was swollen. He called me a liar and denied that the police attacked me.
I then realized my camera case was missing. Some friends told me they were taunting me by waving my bag at me. I personally didn’t notice this- they were beating me after all.
On The Road To Prison:
We got to the police van. There were about 15 of us in there. We just sat there, so I took this opportunity to tweet. I tweeted that I got arrested and was beaten, and also posted a picture of myself.
People from Intelligence came to us and wrote down our names and our mother’s names. They searched us and confiscated almost everything. They let us keep a few things: money, wallets, civil IDs. They took my phone but kept it inside the vehicle.
We had to talk quietly in the van, or else the drive would turn and tell us to be quiet; it was very cliché. They tried to intimidate us by taking a very long route and passed by other prison facilities and police stations in Beirut. We first passed by the Hbeish Police Station, and then passed by a police station in Verdun. Then we got to Helou, and there were many protesters by the facility calling for the release of the others held there. The moment the driver noticed them, he took a secret entrance and stopped there for a while. We weren’t sure if they hesitated to take us inside because the prison was full or if they didn’t want to keep all the arrested protesters together. So we sat in the van for five minutes outside the prison not doing anything. The driver then continued driving and at that point we started joking that we’re going to stay at Roumieh prison. The driver would intentionally drive recklessly too, probably to intimidate us. We arrived at Jdeide Prison and got out of the van after waiting for 15 minutes. There were people from the Lebanese Red Cross there. I saw them checking on a guy who had a broken nose and could barely breathe. I don’t know what happened to him.
Prison Conditions At Jdeide:
We were forced to take off our shoes, socks, and belts. They took the remainder of our belongings except for our money. They started putting us in different cells and changed their minds a lot. “Oh, six in one cell is too much – put him in another one. We can’t exceed five.”
The cells were 1.5 by 3 or 4 meters, or even less. It was disgusting. The mattresses looked like they’ve been there for a hundred years. They smelled terrible and were uncomfortable. There were 5 people in my cell, including myself. I was later transferred to another one, which had a total of 4, and then 3. Some cells had a fan near the doors, but were not inside the cell. The first cell had a fan. The second one didn’t- it was really hot.
On the first night, we initially weren’t allowed to smoke, but changed their minds later. I don’t smoke, but I watched prison guards hand out cigarettes to prisoners who did. We were given food at around 4 AM. We don’t know where it came from, but we had tons of it. Some of us were asleep or trying to at that point. Not everyone could stretch their legs. Someone was more or less standing, while I slept like this [demonstrates fetal position].
I remember at one point the power went out for two hours. I guess it was from 11 PM until 1 AM or something along the lines of that. We only knew it was day and night based on sunshine. It was pitch black. I tried to sleep, but woke up after a cockroach startled me.
We first had a preliminary session, which was more like a short information session. They took our names, family names, home addresses, occupations…etc. They were very friendly, which was weird. They would even tell us that they supported the movement.
I still didn’t know under what charges I was arrested and when I will be released. They would keep telling me it’s up to the judiciary. We found out that we will be interrogated by officials coming to Jdeide from Beirut.
Two people were interrogated at a time. There were three people from the police: someone sitting at the desk (who I guess was the highest ranking official), and two others.
They asked about why we were still in Martyrs’ Square at 12:30 AM even though the security forces that people should leave between 9 and 10 PM. I had no idea that they even did that, and told them that I didn’t hear them make that announcement. I then said that as a photographer, even if I heard the announcement, I wanted to stay until the very end taking footage of what was going on.
“Assaad Thebian told you guys to leave.”
I said that he did, but then we were swarmed and surrounded as we were trying to leave.
“Why did you escape?”
I was honest and said that it was because I was scared of the riot police. I said, “The riot police don’t discriminate between anyone, whether you’re peaceful or violent.”
“So what do we do? We just say that the police swarmed you guys and you weren’t doing anything?”
I told them that of course there were people throwing rocks, but even so, that’s not how you treat them as security forces.
“Who hit you?”
I told them that people from the Internal Security Forces and the riot police. The person who asked then made a joke saying that they were just practicing their karate skills on me. They were messing with me.
I then asked for a doctor to check on my swollen eye. They refused, despite it being my right, and suggested they take me to a public hospital after my release. Throughout the interrogation, we were constantly accused of throwing rocks at the police. I guess it was some sort of psychological pressure, but it didn’t work. They kept telling us that we would be released soon. Sometimes they’d tell us that we’d be freed in a couple of hours, sometimes longer.
I spoke to my mother after the interrogation. I was allowed to have a two-minute phone call with anyone. It was an awkward situation. Four officers were watching me, laughing at me while I struggled to not break down while talking to her. I was standing my ground so far, but when you talk to your parents in such a difficult situation, it’s hard to keep your composure.
The Power Of Protest
On the second day [October 9], the phones didn’t stop ringing. The person who soon became my lawyer (Nadine Moussa) visited as well. We had a discussion about my situation and my rights.
I then was transferred to another cell, which had one less person, so it was a total of four including myself. I could stretch my legs- what a luxury. By the end of the second night, they released a few others. At that point we felt optimistic that we’ll be out soon as well.
Pressure kept mounting on the police. There were protests outside the prison facilities that night. In Jdeide, we saw how anxious the police were about the situation. They were so short on personnel to handle both the prisons and the protesters; they had the cook guard the prisons.
Many lawyers, including mine, were at protests and told the media that they wanted to take these human rights violations to Human Rights Watch and so on.
Suddenly, we were given new mattresses, which felt like a luxury. Perhaps they were caving in to the external pressure. Either way was difficult to not get depressed and feel down about the whole situation. We constantly tried to cheer each other up. The protests outside the prison grew larger and larger. We heard the chants from our cells. People were saying our names and demanding our freedom. It was an emotional time for us; we cried a bit.
I was released at around 9:30 AM on Sunday, October 11, 2015.
I got my things back, my shoes, ID…etc. I then signed a proof of residence document (سند إقامة), wrote basic information once again and so on. There was no contract about not going back to protests; they didn’t make us go through urine tests or any kind of medical tests. They didn’t strip search us like they did with other folks too.
Hassan is still attending protests and shooting footage with his mobile phone. He has since started a crowdfunding campaign which he successfully funding to purchase new photography equipment. It can be accessed here.
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