Lebanon must release journalist accused of arms trafficking

New York, February 5, 2013–Authorities in Beirut should drop criminal charges against Rami Aysha, a Lebanese-Palestinian freelance journalist who was arrested by Hezbollah forces last August as he was investigating arms trafficking, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Aysha was arrested by Hezbollah forces in the southern suburbs of the capital and held for a month before being released on bail, according to news reports. Aysha has worked for several international news outlets since 2007. Over time, he has reported on arms smuggling from Lebanon to neighboring Syria. At the time of his detention, he was photographing border areas where arms trafficking often occurred.

The journalist faces charges of arms smuggling, including “purchasing firearms,” which carry up to three years in jail. Aysha has denied all the allegations against him.

The journalist said that the prosecutor refused to believe that he was working as a journalist at the time, and had referred the case to a military tribunal. Aysha will appear before a military tribunal on Wednesday, he said. Civilians appear before military courts if they face charges on arms trafficking or smuggling, according to the constitution.

Aysha told CPJ that Hezbollah forces had forced him out of his car at gunpoint in August and kidnapped him, along with two other individuals. Aysha also said that other defendants in the case, individuals also charged with arms trafficking, had told the prosecutor that Aysha was working as a journalist at the time he was kidnapped. A report by the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV also acknowledged that Aysha was a journalist investigating a story at the time.

Several news organizations confirmed in a letter received by CPJ that Aysha had often reported arms smuggling from Lebanon to Syria and frequently investigated these stories on his own initiative. The letter’s signatories included journalists from Time magazine, Spiegel Online, and Global Post, as well as other Lebanese-based journalists who were concerned about Aysha’s detention.

“Authorities cannot ignore the preponderance of evidence and testimony that Rami Aysha was working in the capacity of a journalist,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. “Lebanese authorities should immediately drop all charges and release him.”

Lebanon has increasingly been affected by the unrest in neighboring Syria, CPJ research shows. In April, CPJ documented the killing of a Lebanese cameraman while filming near the Syrian border.

  • For more data and analysis on Lebanon, visit CPJ’s Lebanon page here.