Matt Nash

Facebook group gets three arrested

President Michel Sleiman’s Facebook page hit back Tuesday at critics who were arrested on Monday for allegedly defaming him. Under the “President Michel Sleiman’s Notes” section of what seems to be the president’s official page, an unidentified author defends Sleiman’s respect for free speech and argues that a now-defunct Facebook group called “We don’t want a traitor as president” offered insults and disrespect, not constructive criticism.

Defamation is a crime according to Lebanon’s penal code, and both the public prosecutor’s office and military intelligence monitor news outlets and the internet, launching investigations against alleged defamers.

Publically, Sleiman has not yet addressed the issue, though the office of Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar issued a press release explaining the legal rational behind the move, Al-Arabiya reported. The release said the suspects – known on the web as the Facebook 3 – violated articles outlawing defamation, slander and libel in both the Penal Code and the 1962 Press Law.

The Penal Code, according to a lawyer who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the press, bans people from defaming, slandering or libeling someone else “in public,” a vague definition that arguably includes Facebook. The code also includes special provisions related to Lebanon’s president and the president of any “sisterly state.”

When these heads of state are defamed, slandered or libeled, the public prosecutor can launch investigations, issue warrants and make arrests unilaterally upon finding evidence of the crime without anyone first filing a lawsuit, the lawyer said. In all other cases, the courts cannot act until someone first files suit.

The press law, however, is quite different. First, it applies only to physically printed newspapers and magazines, not the internet, the lawyer said. It also bans pre-trial detention of anyone accused of defamation, slander or libel – a ban not respected in this case, as the Facebook 3 – identified by AFP as Naim George Hanna, 27, Antoine Youssef Ramia, 29, and Shebel Rajeh Qasab, 27 – are in custody but have not been to trial, the lawyer added.

The “traitor” group included a long essay that leveled several criticisms at Sleiman both as president and as commander of the army, a post he held up until his May 2008 election to the nation’s highest office. Some of the criticism of Sleiman’s job as president in the essay was similar to comments made by MP Wiam Wahhab in March, who faced no defamation charges.

Hanna, Ramia and Qasab were interrogated and arrested Monday on the orders of State Prosecutor Said Mirza.

A fourth suspect, Ahmed Ali Shuman, remains on the loose, AFP reported.

The president’s post both targets the essay itself as insulting and points to comments left by other Facebook users that, for example, call Sleiman a “snake.” In its defense of the president’s respect for freedom of expression, the post seems aimed at the shocked and sometimes angry internet response to Monday’s arrests. A petition is being circulated and many are accusing Lebanon of silencing free speech.

Sleiman did not know about the arrests before they happened, a source familiar with this case – who is not authorized to talk to the media and so spoke anonymously – told NOW Lebanon. The source said there is a department in the public prosecutor’s office dedicated to monitoring the media and internet for insults against the president.

This department is not unique. A few months ago, a Facebook user not living in Lebanon insulted a retired member of the army, a source familiar with the incident told NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Two people agreed with that assessment, posted follow-up comments and were soon being investigated by military intelligence, the source said.

Retired General Elias Hanna told NOW Lebanon that, similar to the public prosecutor’s office, there is a department within military intelligence that monitors news outlets and the internet for defamation, libel and slander against members of the army.

The two who agreed with insults against the retired army member were questioned by military intelligence, the military police and the public prosecutor’s office in an ongoing defamation case, the source said. Because they did not initiate the alleged defamation, no further action was taken against them, but the file is still open and should the person who originally posted the insult come to Lebanon, he will be arrested, the source said.

Those accused of defaming the president, meanwhile, could face two months to two years in prison, a fine or both if convicted, the lawyer said. Hanna, who now teaches Political Science at several local universities, said he thinks Sleiman will soon call for an end to the investigation as the arrests look terrible for Lebanon and are opening it up to criticism.

  • saadmekari

    my dear fellow friends its true with out a doubt we do have the privilege that many other Arabic countries lack of the free speech and freedom of expression but in the mean time insulting any body to our upbringing totally unaccepted never mind about what MR WEAM WAHHB way of talking and insulting his fellow MP ore PRIME MINISTER MR SAAD HARIRI that to the authority to deal with again we cannot+should not be alike if the HOUSE OF PARLEMENT DECIED OR NOT TO PROSECUTE HIM its their business and am sure none of us would like to hear ore insult any one especially our very RESPECTED PRESIDENT some of you might not agree with me by calling him HIS THECROWN OF OUR COUNTRY in my opinion if theirs no body to represent us in the world we will not be respected finally am not giving a lecture to any one but feel free if you like to criticise me for any thing you like PS I PROMISE NOT TO TAKE LEGAL ACTION in London is expensive GOD BLESS EVRY BODY

    February 9, 2011

  • free-thinker

    At the first impression, we saw that those facebook guys deserve that...but when we try to think more deeply to the issue..questions must be really addressed here: How can those guys be arressted while other politicians or even people under the spotlight, are doing more than this on the media??? would it be fair to arresst those guys who might unintentially thought that we live in a country of democracy? and don't you remember the insults that were showered on the previous president and no one was mentioning anything about these laws? why to blame those guys if they don't know? the goverment must look again on the things that must be done to achieve development and move on from these binded idealogies which is encouraging chaos and increasing ignorance!!

    July 5, 2010

  • داريوس حرب

    they deserve that for breaking the criminal law .

    July 1, 2010


    Don't cry for me oh Lebanon!

    July 1, 2010

  • noble

    These arrests led me (and many others) to read the defamation posted on Lebanese fora. This was either bad advice the president received from his entourage or an omen of a new wave of oppression by the Sleiman reign after Lahoud.

    July 1, 2010

  • Jackie Wright

    He made a deal with the Syria occupiers before he came back from his ...exile in France to forgive and forget. And he has forgotten what he'd accused of them of doing, he forgave them of the crimes they commuted again the people of Lebanon, he went even further when, from the University of Damascus, he absolved their Army of the well documented executions of the Lebanese Army soldiers on his day of infamy. In return he was promised the presidency he almost destroyed the country to get. He supported the May 7 2008 armed coup hoping for a coronation but the coup failed and his hopes where shattered again. He threatened the medias that dared to criticize him, fiddled while one of them burned. He still can't handle the fact when people talk about the President of Lebanese they say General Michel Sleiman, not Aoun, the avatars of the kids who setup the Facebook group attest to that fact. But that said, I support their right to have the page.

    July 1, 2010