Lebanon: Police in Tripoli turn into modern-day Robin Hood with a twist

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Two members of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces ride through Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Eva Shoufi, Hussein Mahdi

Published Saturday, August 30, 2014

On August 28, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in the northern city of Tripoli decided to set their priorities straight when it came to enforcing the law and maintaining public order. They overlooked the many violations they could not suppress because their perpetrators enjoy political backing, and neglected the numerous complaints filed by citizens, since they “lack the resources” to solve them. Instead, police units resorted to militia-type tactics to confiscate a cart that belongs to a mobile vendor who sells seedless grapes to support his poor family.

Bassam al-Chawa stopped his cart of grapes at the Azmi Street intersection in Tripoli, awaiting a small amount of money that would help him buy food for his 10 children.

This cart was this “vulnerable” man’s only source of income. His hardship did not end after he fled Aleppo six months ago as he is facing today new adversities while seeking to earn a living. Chawa buys 250,000 Lebanese Liras ($165) worth of fruits on a daily basis, so he can earn a meager 15,000 LL ($10) profit at the end of the day.

On Thursday, he was suddenly surrounded by two ISF cars. Seeing the manner in which police officers exited their vehicles, people sitting at a nearby café thought the cart was rigged with explosives.

The issue, however, was much simpler. The cart actually dared to distort the “luxurious landscape” of the center of Tripoli and, even worse, its owner had no one backing him.

Officers pounced on the grapes, while insulting and ridiculing the man who broke down in tears.

“Hey you, don’t you understand? It seems you are a Homsi,” these were some of the phrases the police “thugs” used to address the man as they picked out the best of his grapes and placed them in plastic bags they grabbed from the cart, according to eyewitnesses sitting at a nearby café.

As the poor man wept, he kept repeating the same sentence, “Please sir, I want to feed my children.”

The scene of a man crying and begging the police to spare the livelihood of his small children would have prompted any person to sympathize with a poor father seeking to earn a living. However, the violation he had committed could not be overlooked.

The security forces carried bags of grapes and left behind the ones they deemed not good enough. Then they drove away, leaving the grape-seller sitting by the sidewalk, wailing over his misfortune.

People who witnessed the incident described it as an attempt to bully the weak and the poor, so they collected some money and gave it to the man to compensate him for his losses.

The ISF presented a different version of events. According to Colonel Joseph Moussalem, head of the ISF public relations department, the police seized 25 carts including the one belonging to the vendor of grapes, whose picture was circulated online.

He attributed the police actions to multiple complaints received from the city’s merchants who were displeased by the illegal competition. In addition, the carts were causing traffic jams.

Moussalem said the people detained by the police, including the grape-seller, were all Syrian whose names were registered with the UN as refugees, hence benefitting from cash handouts and other aid.

He also denied that the police only took half of the grapes, stressing that everything was seized and donated to an orphanage.

So the police took grapes from a poor man and gave it to orphans, leaving his 10 children waiting for their father to come back home with dinner. This is the story of how a modern-day Robin Hood was embodied in a police uniform in Tripoli.

Commenting on the incident, Tripoli activist Elias Khalat, said what happened was utterly shameful, adding that “it would have been good if the law had been applied to everyone, but the weak is the only target they chose?”

“Tripoli wants the state to impose its authority as long as it does it in a fair and equal manner,” Khalat added, expressing fear that more of these practices could take place without anyone knowing about them.

“Why are the police not imposing their authority and removing the stands that are committing violations in the Abu Ali area and occupying the pavement and public spaces? Why are they not stopping the violations committed by bus drivers who are exploiting public property as well?”

Violations are rampant all over Tripoli and in Lebanon in general, causing far more harm than a simple cart of fruits.

“Under the current security and economic conditions, we should not be focusing on theses issues. Tripoli is stricken by poverty and people are seeking the simplest means to live in dignity,” said Ali al-Salou, chairman of the vending stands syndicate in the city.

“Who would it hurt if they just let him sell (his fruits)?” he asked, adding “people in Tripoli are dying of poverty while they choose to implement the law.”

Police practices are not a secret and are widely-discussed by people in the city. Ali shared some of the troubles that Syrian stand owners have to face. They includes, for example, “a Lebanese man imposing an arbitrary daily rent on them and collaborating with a local policeman to look the other way in exchange for a certain share of the profits,” he said.

Ali revealed that sometimes a police patrol “targets a certain stand and ignores the others, the officers take the goods and share it among each other.”

The grapes incident reopened the debate over the so-called “tipping” received by the police, which is not restricted to vending stands, but includes building violations, and is considered a good source of profit for the security forces.

“There are shops and cafes built on municipal property and on private properties that belong to others but no one targets them. Why? Because they have an ‘arrangement,’” Ali said.

“That man’s cart was committing a violation and the cafes in al-Tel Square and the Roxy Cafe are not?” he asked.

In addition, many vehicles with white license plates (meaning they can only be used as private cars) are being used as taxis all over town and no one is stopping them.

Some people go as far as assuring that every building “with a flagrant violation is protected by the police in exchange for something specific.” They also recount their observations outside Tripoli, particularly in Beirut, saying they saw stand owners being exploited just so they can keep their merchandise

Moussalem did not deny that some “mistakes” do happen, because in the end, the policeman “is part of the Lebanese society.”

He also acknowledged that the common practice of “pulling strings” hinders the work of the police force sometimes. However, he insisted that the ISF “is the only institution that allows citizens to file complaints against one of its members,” adding that “disciplinary measures are being taken against police officers every month.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

I’m really touched by reading this piece, and what seized my awareness was the immoral behaviour of our officers “that strongly care for the civilians..” However, long story short, “they… Our servant” our very caring government and officials,
before assigning a police officer should make he/she take a reasonable psychological test, though if the “civilized” officer doesn’t know how to read… then psychological questions should be asked in form of a test and the result of mortally will ensue his/her various behaviours on the field.
“Civilians and especially children should look up to our officers, not panic in their presence!”

okay mabrouk sar 3enna dawle!...men yawmen 3a Rdpt baabdet tal3in ana w chabb rfi2e )two bikes) fully equipped, helmet, boots, jacket, glovs....so ata3na 2 meters b 3aks l ser cz ken l ser we2if, bi wa2efne darak w bya3melle zabet, w nafs l 7adis l rfi2e...7a22o... bass l mas5ara enno meanwhile ken ata3 chi 20 moto na nomar, w la helmets, w nossoun souriyye w hnoud, w a5ou l layha b2ello chouf hole bi elle ana cheyfak elak.... anyway dafa3na l zabet w a5adna dafeterna.... w 5oulasit l amer eletello enno 7a2 3layye 7taramtak ken lezim ebzou2 b wejjak w ehroub...ma tefhamoune ghalat, ana be7terim l darak...bass yemkin hone l mechkle...

Yeah sure. The rot starts at the top.

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