BEIRUT: Hundreds gathered in Riad al-Solh Square Wednesday evening to demand the release of protesters who were detained by police during a day of street action and clashes in Downtown Beirut which left at least 20 people wounded.
Security forces started releasing key organizers in the You Stink movement at 6 p.m., after detaining around 38 demonstrators during the scuffles, which broke out after crowds attempted to gain entrance to Nejmeh Square where politicians were holding national dialogue talks.
Crowds called for the immediate release of all demonstrators. Among the key activists detained were Marwan Maalouf, Hasan Shamas and Ali Slim, three prominent You Stink members, and Arabi Andari, the former head of the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth, a leftist activist group. All but Maalouf were released by 7 p.m. Six female protesters who were held for several hours at Gemmayzeh police station were also freed around that time.
The arrests came after riot police had dispersed protesters using batons outside the An-Nahar newspaper building, dragging a number of them by their hair and kicking them while on the ground.
Protesters were for the second week in a row protesting policians' decision to hold a dialogue session, calling instead for immediate parliamentary elections that could bring new representatives to power. The action comes after nearly two months of demonstrations, in which thousands joined You Stink in calling on Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk to resign and demanding a sustainable solution to the country's garbage crisis.
Lebanese Red Cross chief Georges Kettaneh said his medics treated 13 of the injured on the spot and moved seven others to four different hospitals in Beirut.
Three young men who had been on hunger strike for two weeks were among those detained by police, including Waref Sleiman, who was the first to go on hunger strike. Sleiman was also later released.
A number of demonstrators were also wounded by a group of men who identified themselves as supporters of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in an attack on the tents of hunger strikers outside the Environment Ministry.
Video shows Berri supporters attacking hunger strikers:
Activists also protested outside Al-Helou police station on Mar Elias Street to demand the release of those detained.
The entrances of Nejmeh Square, where the Parliament is located, had been blocked to pedestrians in the morning. Only those carrying business cards for companies and offices operating within the security perimeter were allowed to enter.
The road leading to the offices of An-Nahar newspaper near Martyrs' Square was also closed, in addition to the streets housing the Beirut Souks and Beirut's naval base.
Protesters and civil society groups began assembling at Martyrs' Square after calls by the You Stink campaign and the families of Lebanese hostages held by ISIS on the northeastern border town of Arsal to converge on the area at 9:00 a.m.
Demonstrators held several protests at a number of entrances to the Parliament starting 10 a.m., in an attempt to prevent politicians from reaching the national dialogue session.
But after violence broke out, the hostage families withdrew to Riad al-Solh Square, where they have been camped out since last year to draw attention to their cause.
“We will act peacefully and block the roads with our bodies,” You Stink co-founder Assaad Thebian told Al-Jadeed TV, adding that politicians “always block roads in the face of the people, so it will be okay if we close the roads for once.”
Protesters shouting “shabiha” began kicking iron barriers, which security forces were stationed behind, preventing them from moving forward. Demonstrators soon managed to remove some of the barriers, leaving riot police and the protesters face to face.
Police responded by attacking protesters with batons, kicking them and dragging them away. A Daily Star photographer saw two plainclothes policemen briefly being beaten up by riot police after being mistaken for protesters.
Four men who were suspected of being undercover police officers because they attacked protesters and facilitated their detention, told Al-Jadeed that they were supporters of Berri and intervened only after a demonstrator insulted him.
"I still remember his face, the one who insulted Speaker Berri!," one of them shouted.
Later, around 10 men who introduced themselves as "Berri's thugs" began to destroy the tents of the hunger strikers who have been camped outside the Environment Ministry in Downtown Beirut for two weeks. One of the men took a glass bottle and broke it over the head of a protester, while a second man was hit in the head with a stone, drawing blood.
A hunger striker had earlier cursed Berri, calling him a dog on live television.
Ahmed Hammoud, one of the men who identified himself as a Berri supporter, said he lives "in the area", and admitted to participating in the attack on the tents, complaining that the protesters "have been insulting Berri for an hour."
Police did not detain any of those who said they were loyal to the speaker, and did not intervene when they attacked the hunger strikers, prompting a number of protesters to call them "traitors."
But when a larger group of Berri supporters attacked the crowds for a second time about an hour later, throwing large stones, chairs and water bottles, riot police intervened to push them back. Only one of the attackers was detained. The others escaped.
The Amal Movement, which is led by Berri, denied any involvement in Wednesday's violence. In a statement, the party urged everyone to “stay calm and avoid strife.”
After the first scuffle between protesters and police near An-Nahar newspaper's building, demonstrators began shouting at security forces demanding the release of activist Ali Sleem, who was the first to be detained Wednesday.
Thebian later told The Daily Star that Sleem suffered from a chronic health condition that makes him more susceptible to internal bleeding if beaten, and called for his immediate release.
You Stink revealed on Facebook the names of 38 people who were detained, saying there were others who were yet to be identified.
Thebian had explained that by noon, six had been taken from the main protest location outside An-Nahar, five others from near Beirut Municipality's building and an unidentified number from a crossroad at the entrance of Bab Idriss Street.
A video shared on social media showed police dragging six protesters, including one who appeared unconscious, into a security vehicle near the Murr Tower.
The policemen were pelted with water bottles, as they used their shields to prevent demonstrators from moving toward Nejmeh Square.
"Down with the rule of the shabiha," protesters chanted.
Riot police eventually encircled protesters and pushed them back from the street leading to Nejmeh Square.
An Internal Security Forces source told The Daily Star that riot police were only apprehending "rioters, not peaceful protesters."
The source underscored that the "Interior Ministry did not issue orders to arrest any demonstrator or use force against peaceful protesters."
"The demonstrators assaulted policemen, pelting them with eggs, paint containers and water bottles."
"Our job is to protect peaceful protesters and demonstrations but they are assaulting us," he claimed.
Traffic was diverted from Saifi after demonstrators placed the barriers in the middle of the road.
Thebian tried to calm down demonstrators and police, telling them "we're only demanding to live in dignity ... we shouldn't be beaten up for trying to enter a square that belongs to us."
One female protester collapsed on the ground after riot police began using batons to beat away demonstrators. Another activist attempted to assist her before both were dragged away by police.
Security forces also urged reporters and cameramen in the area to withdraw from the scene.
"I am here to make my voice heard," another protester added.
"They (Lebanon's politicians) might be able to enter Parliament but they won't be able to leave it," he warned ominously.
The dialogue session convened at noon despite the demonstrators' attempt to block entrances, with politicians' convoys entering the square via an unknown route.
Activists attempted last week to halt the convoys by throwing eggs, tomatoes and their own bodies during the first round of the national dialogue, which is sponsored by Speaker Nabih Berri. The talks underscored sharp differences between the rival parties over how to resolve a protracted political crisis that has plunged Lebanon into a presidential vacuum and paralyzed the executive and legislative branches of government.
Parliament's General Secretariat announced that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun was not attending the session, but underlined that his absence was for Wednesday's session only.
Media reports said that Aoun delegated Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and MP Ibrahim Kanaan to represent the party.
Hussein Youssef, the father of captive Mohammad Youssef, expressed remorse that the “garbage crisis prompted the whole country to rise up but the case of the abducted men did not provoke them.”
“We have backed the civil movements since day one ... but our case is more important,” he said.
“We lost hope in the Lebanese state and we are not convinced that all the endeavors carried out over the past year and a half could not yield any results,” Youssef noted, calling on politicians to make the case of kidnapped servicemen a priority at the national dialogue.
Nizam Mgheit, the brother of soldier Ibrahim Mgheit, speaking at Martyrs' Square, described the dialogue as “the table of traders and gambling.”
“Why do you want to elect a new president, you thieves? If this state contained any real men, the soldiers and policemen would not have remained hostages,” he shouted.
“You really stink and the truth became clear to the eye. You have lied to us over and over. Go back to your homes, it would be more honorable,” another relative of an ISIS captive said.