BEIRUT: A Lebanese citizen has been sentenced to two months in prison for insulting the president, prompting calls for the charges to be dropped and the law to be reformed.
Jean Assy, a Web developer and prolific tweeter, was arrested last summer over a series of tweets from January and February 2013 in which he called President Michel Sleiman “castrated,” among other things.
He took to Twitter again Wednesday to announce that after several months of deliberations, “the judge of the Court of Publications has issued a ruling for [me to spend] two months in prison for slandering the president.”
Speaking to The Daily Star, Assy defended his comments, saying that he made them in a fit of anger after two Army soldiers were killed during an ambush in Arsal early last February, as well as the interior minister’s negotiations with fugitive hard-liner Sheikh Ahmad Assir.
“I was provoked,” he said. “It was a reaction to specific incidents.”
The Lebanese penal code criminalizes slander, libel and defamation. Sentences can be between two months and two years in prison, a fine or both.
There have been a number of similar cases before, but according to lawyer Nizar Saghieh, this is the first time in a long time that someone has received more than a fine.
“It hasn’t been applied for more than 15 years,” said Saghieh, who has a long history of working with such cases.
“I hope the ruling will be overturned,” he added.
“This is a new development and it’s very alarming to hand down a jail sentence just for speaking.”
But Human Rights Watch went further, arguing that the legislation needed to be reformed.
“We hope for a revision of this law that criminalizes public expression,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said. “The issue here is no one should go to jail for defaming or insulting a public figure, this what international law requires.”
Lebanon has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 of which says that all public figures, including heads of state, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.
Houry said although cases such as Assy’s were not very common in Lebanon, they were on the uptick.
“I would hate to see Lebanon go down the path of other countries in the region ... that are using these provision to silence criticism,” he said. “Is this really the company Lebanon wants to be keeping?”
Assy said he intended to appeal the ruling. A protest was held Wednesday evening to demand the charges be dropped.
“I don’t get why the president is doing this to me,” he said. “Maybe fine me, but to jail me – they want to destroy my life.”
The president’s office declined to comment on the sentence.