Beirut office of Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat daily ransacked over cartoon

Published April 3rd, 2016 - 07:00 GMT
The alleged culprits were previously arrested for riots during trash protests.  (Photo courtesy of The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
The alleged culprits were previously arrested for riots during trash protests. (Photo courtesy of The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

Police have detained a well-known activist after a dozen people stormed and ransacked the Beirut offices of the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat Friday, after the newspaper published a caricature poking fun at Lebanon.

Pierre Hashash and Abbas Zahri, prominent civil society activists, were among the men who broke into the offices. A video recorded by Hashash depicting the breach was shared on his Facebook page.

The video shows the young men storming past the security guard at the door. They then attempt to convince Asharq al-Awsat’s staff to demonstrate in protest of the paper’s attempt at an April Fools’ joke.

Asharq al-Awsat published a picture of the Lebanese flag with the caption “April Fools: The Lebanese state” insinuating that Lebanon itself is an April Fools’ joke. The cartoon created an uproar on social media and was widely criticized by citizens and politicians. When the paper’s employees refused to accede to the protester’s demands and informed them that they had called the authorities, the situation turned violent. The demonstrators are seen trashing the offices as Hashash’s video comes to an abrupt end. A journalist at the newspaper told The Daily Star that protesters raided the office in Beirut’s Tabaris neighborhood around 7 p.m. “Twelve people came into my office and asked us why we didn’t protest [the cartoon], and threatened that if we didn’t strike tomorrow, they would take action,” he said. The protesters left the offices after the journalist told them he was calling the Army.

A number of the culprits, including Hashash and Zahri, have previously been arrested for rioting during demonstrations decrying the garbage crisis. They were made to sign a pledge by security forces promising not to participate in or incite further rioting. Security sources told The Daily Star that their Friday actions were a violation of that oath. Hasan Koutesh and Bilal Alawi were also identified by security sources as suspects, along with a member of the Al-Horoz family. Security sources told The Daily Star that the protestors would be pursued to their homes and arrested. Security forces conducted interviews with the journalists who were present at the time of the breach and recorded their testimony. The case has been referred to the Public Prosecutor.

Asharq al-Awsat released a statement denouncing the assault. “Asharq al-Awsat condemns the vicious assault on its Beirut offices ... and it holds the Lebanese state responsible for maintaining the safety of its office employees,” it read. It also defended the motive behind the cartoon: “Asharq al-Awsat confirms that it respects the Lebanese. ... The caricature aimed to shed light on the reality of the Lebanese state as an entity living a huge lie. It comes from attempts to dominate it and drive it away from its Arab environment,” in reference to Iranian influence over Lebanon. The newspaper vowed to continue operating in Lebanon.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya abruptly suspended its operations in Lebanon earlier Friday, and shut down its offices in Beirut, citing security concerns.

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