American journalist Nada Homsi was released by Lebanese authorities on December 8, after a 23-day detention. The release came following mounting media and human rights pressure on the Lebanese security apparatus to free the Beirut-based journalist. The Lebanese General Security had detained Homsi for three weeks, where she spent the first three days in the custody of the Information Branch with her husband, Taher Zoabi, an advocate born to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father.
Homsi works as an independent journalist. She has been employed by several Arab and international media outlets, the most recent of which was the US news outlet National Public Radio (NPR), covering news in Lebanon and following up on the latest events taking place in Syria. She spoke to Raseef22, providing a detailed account of what happened to her from the moment she was arrested to her release.
Homsi begins, “Last November, about 10 members of the Lebanese Information Branch, accompanied by the mukhtar [elected head of a locality] of the Tabaris area in Ashrafieh, knocked on the door of the house that I lived in with my partner, so I asked them to wait a little, but they promptly broke into our house and began to search it, confiscating the phones and computers. They accused me of working in the black market and illegally smuggling people out of Lebanon.”
She adds, “They were asking about everything. They saw that I had a lot of posters for Palestine. They began asking more. In the end, they found my American passport and noticed that seven years ago I had gone into Palestine.” Homsi had then been working with UNRWA for a year and a half in Ramallah. She tried to tell them that, but none of them wanted to listen.
In Homsi’s house there are many photos. She is a journalist who covers regional issues, specifically those in Lebanon and Syria, and is concerned with politics in the Middle East and other regions. Hanging on the walls are pictures from Afghanistan, and some even from the recent events in Tayouneh. “They found a small amount of cannabis, about two cigarettes,” she says, “They then took me and my husband to the headquarters of the Information Branch.”
She states, “During the first three days at the Information Branch, they did not let me contact anyone. I was not detained. I was kidnapped and I don’t know why. They didn’t tell me what it is I had done, that is if they really thought I had done something. They didn’t have an arrest warrant. I'm sure that only after they raided the house, the search warrant was issued.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch demanded the immediate release of Homsi, calling on the Lebanese authorities to end her “arbitrary detention”. The rights groups stressed the importance of a “prompt, thorough, independent, transparent and effective investigation into the due process violations that the detainee has faced since her arrest. and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible.”
Recently, the crackdown on journalists has intensified, most notably through the summonses that the security services are issuing under various pretexts.
Homsi is an independent journalist, working with several Arab and international media outlets - most recent of which was National Public Radio (NPR) - covering news in Lebanon and following up on the latest events in Syria
During the investigation with Homsi, the officers of the Information Branch focused on the subject of Palestine, and what she had been doing in Ramallah. She only had one answer that she kept repeating, “Working with UNRWA.” Homsi is a journalist, and by virtue of her work, she says that she has contact with many people from several countries, and this is a part of the work she does and a part of her ability to produce journalistic content.
Homsi tells Raseef22, “After the Information Branch finished its questioning, they took me to the Lebanese General Security. There I stayed for 23 days - a continuous investigation that made no sense. After a few days they told me that I will be charged with terrorism and drug use. I don’t know what terrorism means to them. All they found were Palestinian flags, drawings on the walls of the house, and an entry into Ramallah with an international organization.”
Later, they told her that they had dropped the first charge (terrorism) without releasing her. More so, she says, “There was no reason for me to be held in prison. After two weeks, they said that I had to leave, that is leave Lebanon, and they would issue an entry ban against me that’ll last for 15 years. How would I leave my partner, my work, and my entire life here in Lebanon and I haven’t done anything wrong? How do I leave the country that I lived in for six years and have my whole life in it.”
Homsi was not subjected to any form of physical torture during her detention, but her husband, Taher Zoabi, says that intelligence officers physically assaulted him during his interrogation. He said he was also treated poorly at the Lebanese General Security without specifying the type of ill-treatment he was subjected to. “Not only did General Security officers raid Homsi’s apartment without producing a judicial warrant, but they also violated her rights in detention by denying her access to a lawyer,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The General Security’s refusal to release Homsi, despite the public prosecution’s order, is a blatant abuse of power and a very worrying indication of the security agency’s lack of respect for the rule of law.”
The interrogation they conducted was continuous and made no sense. A few days later, they told me that I will be charged with terrorism and drug use. I don’t know what terrorism means to them. All they found on me was Palestinian flags.
Homsi is baffled by the reason for the arrest. She says, “During the latest offensive against Gaza that took place earlier this year, I hung the flag of Palestine out on my balcony. Army intelligence officers came and asked me to remove the flag because this may cause a sectarian issue, and therefore I shouldn’t raise it outside the house.” She adds, “The lawyer says that this could be the reason behind what happened to me later, while another says that the Information Branch conducts a review from time to time on journalists who are in contact with people in Palestine.”
Homsi does not know what to do. “Do I file a lawsuit against the General Security!” she says sarcastically. She is certain that she will remain in Lebanon and does not want to leave. But she asks, “Why did Lebanon turn into a country that attacks journalists and violates their rights? On what grounds does it just enter people’s homes for no reason and without any legal pretext? Of course what is happening is a cause for fear, and it seems that there are those who want to intimidate journalists.”
Homsi asks, “Why did Lebanon turn into a country that attacks journalists and violates their rights? On what grounds does it just enter people’s homes without any legal pretext?”
Diala Chehade, a human rights lawyer who is following Homsi’s case, tells Raseef22, “From November 25 to December 8, Nada was detained without any judicial basis. The General Security’s reply to this was that ‘as long as the judiciary leaves the decision of her custody to us, this means that we have the right to detain her, and from the second day, on the 26th, we decided to deport her but she doesn’t want to buy the ticket and therefore she is the reason for her own detainment’! The law says that as long as there is no judicial indication, they have no right to arrest her under any pretext.”
Chehade continues to recount what happened, “The director of operations then goes back and says that her residency is not legal and this isn’t right, and that she is doing freelance work and therefore cannot obtain a work permit. In the end, after he exhausted every excuse, he said that her deportation was for security reasons. But what are these reasons? Was it because she raised the Palestinian flag, or because she sent messages to journalists in Palestine, or because she stayed in Ramallah?” She adds, “During those two weeks, I submitted several requests for her release because there was no legal justification for her arrest and also because the decision to deport her had to be reconsidered because it is not legal.” She indicates that “while conversing with the director of operations, he said that we are deporting her because she admitted that she was smoking marijuana, I assured him that this is illegal because this must take place under a court ruling for a conviction first and then a ruling for deportation after that.”
Chehade believes that “in the end, it seemed as if the General Security had made a mistake, and they saw how Nada continued to stubbornly refuse to buy a ticket and leave Lebanon, and then we heightened the pressure while several human rights organizations issued statements and the press began to refer to the case, so general director Abbas Ibrahim made a decision to release her.”
On Wednesday the 8th, General Security officers entered the cell and told Homsi, “Take your things and go home.” Nada went home, not knowing what she should do, just like the many journalists who continue to witness the harassment and restrictive practices being done against them by security forces, as they wait.