Lebanon News

Protest ongoing as police clear Ministry of Environment

BEIRUT: Riot police cleared You Stink campaign protesters Tuesday from the Environment Ministry in Downtown Beirut, hours after activists began a sit-in calling for the minister’s resignation over the protracted trash crisis.

Young men and women shouted “out, out, out,” as they gathered outside Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk's office on the eighth floor of the Azarieh Building around 1 p.m.

At 5:45 p.m., Beirut's police chief Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ayyoubi asked all media to leave the building as riot police prepared to clear the floor where protesters continued their sit-in.

After a large number of reporters refused to leave, police started cutting the live transmission cables used by the different camera crews. Media stations were still able to keep broadcasting by using Skype through their smartphones.

One hour later, police were seen carrying protesters out of the building, some of them with bruise marks and others handcuffed, witnesses said.

"They first shut turned off the electricity, then locked all the bathrooms. When riot police arrived and the media was kicked out, they started beating us with batons," activist Mohammad Mogharbel told The Daily Star.

The activist claimed that protesters were struck around the head and beaten all the way down to the ground floor.

At least one of the activists removed from the building appeared unconscious and was being treated by medics, a Daily Star reporter at the scene said.

LBC TV host Joe Maalouf, who was present when riot police began clearing the floor, said that protesters and media members were beaten and dragged from the building.

An activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said 14 protesters were still inside the Environment Ministry.

Amir Fakih, who was among the protesters, said on Facebook at 8:10 p.m. that originally 45 activists participated in the sit-in and confirmed that 14 were still "detained at the Economy Ministry on the fifth floor of the same building."

Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouk, the environment minister's cousin, said an Internal Security Forces team entered the building around 7:15 p.m. to remove the remaining demonstrators.

It was later reported around 8:00 p.m. that the Interior Minister reached an agreement with the remaining activists to peacefully vacate the Environment Ministry, according to local media outlets.

All protesters were removed from the building by 9:30 p.m, after which local media reported that Machnouk left his office.

Activist Mohammad Najem, who was among the last group of protesters to leave the building, underlined that they were not forced to remain inside by security forces.

"I want to make clear that we were not detained inside, we were exercising our right to protest with our full will," he told Al-Jadeed after he was pulled out of the building along with the movement's main organizers Marwan Maalouf and Imad Bazzi.

Najem, Maalouf and Bazzi explained that they were forced to leave the building after eight hours of protest, as they insisted on continuing their sit-in until Machnouk resigns.

The Lebanese Red Cross announced on Twitter later Tuesday that seven protesters who were injured during the incidents were moved to hospitals, while 60 others were treated on the spot.

The interior minister told MTV news channel that if reports of protesters beaten inside the Environment Ministry were true, those responsible would be punished.

After initial reports that the You Stink group called for people to rally in nearby Riad al-Solh Square at 6 p.m. to demand Machnouk's immediate resignation, movement spokesperson Joey Ayoub later on his Facebook page called for protesters to gather in front of the Environment Ministry.

At least one thousand protesters, flanked by riot police, remain camped out at various entrances to the complex, chanting for the resignation of the environment minister.

Although the large majority of the protesters were peaceful, several small skirmishes broke out between demonstrators and police.

Police later attempted to disperse the crowd around the Martyrs' Square side of the ministry building.

Several loud bangs were also heard, but it was uncleared whether they originated from objects employed by security forces or demonstrators.

Several demonstrators also attempted to form a human shield between protesters and security forces in attempt to prevent violence.

A source told The Daily Star that Machnouk was trapped within his office inside the ministry but was doing well.

"He's in his office and in excellent condition," the source, who answered Machnouk's cell phone, said.

Local media reported that Machnouk refused to leave the building and decided to stay under the protection of police.

The protesters are refusing to leave the premises until the minister resigns.

Interior Minister Machnouk later said: "We won't allow the occupation of a public facility to continue."

"I gave orders [to police] to negotiate with the protesters. If negotiations fail, we will see what we will do," Machnouk told MTV television station.

An Interior Ministry spokesperson confirmed a report that the activists had been given a 30 minute deadline to evacuate the building, which expired at 3:30 p.m.

The spokesperson later told The Daily Star that although the deadline had passed, negotiations with protesters were ongoing.

"We have said that we would protect peaceful demonstrators, but this time they occupied a public facility and this will not be tolerated," he said by phone.

The decision to issue an ultimatum for protesters to leave the building came after Interior Minister Machnouk spoke by phone with Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

"The minister (Machnouk) sent word to the protesters that it is okay to rally outside the building, but not inside [the ministry]," the spokesperson said.

A You Stink activist told The Daily Star that security forces clad in riot gear entered the building around 4:15 p.m.

The head of Lebanon's Green Party Nada Zarour later entered the floor that the protesters were occupying with a security escort. She was attempting to negotiate with the demonstrators but they refused to speak with her and called on her to leave.

Protesters argued that they refuse to talk to any person that enters the floor with a security escort and rejected any attempts to avoid the minister's resignation.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt commented on the developments on Twitter, emphasizing that "occupying the office of the environment minister isn't the solution to resolve the garbage crisis and other demands."

In a statement published after its weekly meeting, the Future Bloc condemned the invasion of the ministry.

"These actions serve only those who support chaos," the bloc said, refusing "the pressure exerted to push any minister to resign through this rebellious manner."

In a video posted on You Stink's official Facebook page, the protesters could be seen sitting on the floor outside Machnouk's office, some waving the Lebanese flag.

A separate video showed more protesters trying flock into the Environment Ministry only to be stopped by police.

The activists initially managed to storm the building, taking advantage of the concentrated police presence in Riad al-Solh and Martyrs' Square massed there in anticipation of any You Stink action.

One of the co-organizers of Tuesday's action told The Daily Star that protesters entered the facility individually or in couples to avoid being noticed by police, then rushed into the ministry's hallways and launched their sit-in.

You Stink had threatened to escalate its protests against the government if it has failed to meet any of their four demands after a 72-hour ultimatum set last Saturday, activists said Monday.

Less than a dozen policemen, who were swiftly dispatched to Azarieh Building, prevented anyone from entering the building, even reporters and photographers.

Backup soon arrived and riot police cut off all entrances to the building, though the media was later allowed to enter.

Two hours into the sit-in, the protesters inside the Environment Ministry appeared to be suffering from the heat after employees turned off the air conditioning and electricity, one of the activists announced on Facebook. They begged for water, but police would not allow any of the protesters gathered outside the building to give them water.

The Interior Ministry later said the minister gave orders to security forces to distribute water bottles to the protesters.

Protesters occupying the ministry also threw a piece of paper from the seventh floor, warning that security forces were preparing to attack.

 

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