|Date: Jan 29, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Pressure forces LGBTQ events out|
|Abby Sewell| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: An LGBTQ-rights group is planning to move its regional events out of Lebanon amid concerns about increasing repression by authorities, including a possible entry ban on attendees of a conference held last year.
“A lot of our meetings, even not related to sexuality at all, we’re moving them outside of Lebanon now, which is a shame,” said Georges Azzi, executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, a Lebanon-based group focused on LGBTQ and gender issues. “Just for the security of the participants, because we don’t want them to be harassed.”
The move comes after at least three attendees of a conference last fall were banned from returning to the country, Azzi said.
General Security has not confirmed the entry bans, or whether they were related to participation in the event or applied to all the participants, but activists said they fear it represents another step by Lebanese security forces to crack down on the LGBTQ community, and on freedom of speech more generally.
AFE held its annual NEDWA (networking, exchange, development, wellness, achievements) conference in September, with about 100 guests attending, mostly from the Middle East, but also from outside the region.
The conference was interrupted midway through when officers from General Security arrived at the Broummana hotel where it was being held.
According to organizers, the officers asked for the participants’ passports and other identification documents, and ordered the organizers and the hotel to end the event. The event was moved to another venue, where it continued.
Since then, Azzi told The Daily Star, three of the attendees had separately tried to enter Lebanon again and were refused entry at the airport.
Azzi and officials from Human Rights Watch, which has also been following up on the issue, said General Security officials have so far refused to meet with them or answer questions about the existence of an entry ban on the conference’s participants.
A spokesman for General Security told The Daily Star he could neither confirm nor deny a blanket ban on the participants, saying he needed the specific names of those banned.
AFE could not immediately provide those names to The Daily Star, citing privacy concerns.
All three of the people refused entry were from countries that would normally be eligible for a visa on arrival in Lebanon, Azzi said.
“I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but we know that three people tried to come back, and they told them, ‘No, you are banned from entering Lebanon,’” he said.
“Three is enough for us to think maybe it’s because of the conference, but we’re not sure. They tried to ask General Security [why] at the airport, and they refused to give them any answer. They just said that the ban is forever.”
Prior to General Security’s intervention, the AFE conference had drawn fire from a small but politically influential conservative religious organization.
The Muslim Scholars Council, an association of Sunni religious leaders that frequently condemns LGBTQ-related events, had posted a statement on social media decrying the conference as promoting homosexuality and calling on Lebanese authorities to shut it down.
The council described homosexuality as a crime that “threatens society, moral values, public health and the structure of Lebanese families,” and compared the conference to an effort to promote drug use and other criminal activities.
The council also subsequently filed a legal complaint against the AFE, accusing it of promoting debauchery through its HIV prevention programs, Azzi said.
The case is ongoing.
The scholar’s council did not respond to a request for comment.
Lama Fakih, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Beirut office, said the group has also not yet been able to confirm the existence of an entry ban, but pointed to a series of previous moves by security forces to disrupt LGBTQ events, including Beirut Pride, the NEDWA conference and previous events organized by the AFE.
“The response by security forces to try to shut down conferences or try to interfere with rights activists who are trying to create a safe space for gender and sexual rights activists to gather is an infringement on their right to freely assemble in Lebanon,” she said.
“We are concerned that if, in fact, some of these members of the conference have also been banned from entering the country, that’s just a further step that General Security has been taking to clamp down on this legitimate and needed activism.”
Outside the LGBTQ community, more and more activists and journalists in Lebanon have been arrested or called in for questioning over statements published in news outlets or on social media.
Azzi linked those incidents to the issues his organization has faced.
Azzi said at this point he thinks the ban is not just an LGBTQ issue. “We are connecting this to the attack on speech in general in this country.”