Beirut - Civilian activists in Lebanon could be sentenced to three years in prison for their part in protests against the government's handling of an ongoing rubbish crisis, as their military trial commences next week.

Collective anger over the crisis, which saw rubbish spilling into the streets of Beirut after a landfill closure in the summer of 2015, gave life to the activist group YouStink, which organised anti-government protests that drew a fierce response from Lebanese authorities.

Thirteen activists arrested at the time will begin their trial on March 20, in a prosecution that has been condemned by Human Rights Watch. Approximately two dozen YouStink activists are facing trial in total. 

"It has become abundantly clear that civilians cannot get a fair trial in Lebanon's military courts," Lama Fakih, the organisation's deputy Middle East director, told Al Jazeera. "Military courts have no business trying civilians, and Lebanon should end this troubling practice."


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Aly Sleem, who was also arrested during a protest that summer and faces a military trial for which the date has not yet been set, told Al Jazeera that these trials are being used to suppress opposition.

"Military trials are being used as a tool [for] oppressing citizens," he told Al Jazeera.

Sleem was charged with damaging police property, an accusation that he denies. As is standard with military trials, he was not allowed access to a lawyer during the period of investigation.

Military trials are being used as a tool [for] oppressing citizens ... We only protested for our basic rights.

Aly Sleem, protester

"[We] are being oppressed and discriminated against," he said. "We are citizens, after all, and civilians. We only protested for our basic rights and if I - and I highlight 'if' - should face any legal dilemma, it should be in a civil trial, not a military one."

Military courts are overseen by Lebanon's defence ministry and have a broad mandate, noted Human Rights Watch, which has documented a pattern of alleged torture during military interrogations.

The defence ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment on why civilian cases were being tried in the military court system.

One of YouStink's founding members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the use of military trials for civilian activists was a tactic designed to limit dissent. He described a revolutionary fervour that gripped the demonstrations in the summer of 2015, some of which drew thousands of protesters. 

From the early days, it became clear that the rubbish crisis represented a much wider and endemic problem - the failure of government to prioritise the concerns of citizens over its own financial or political considerations.

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"People were chanting, 'Topple the regime'. They used a lot of tactics to scare people not to go to the protests," he said, citing rumours of plots by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to attack protesters, in addition to allegations that certain politicians were encouraging individuals to stir up violence. "They tried to kill it in every possible way, and one of the tactics they used was catching people and putting them in prison and scaring them, and when they are caught, they go to military trial."

While rubbish is no longer overflowing into Lebanon's streets, the government's temporary solution has only given way to a new problem.

Beirut's rubbish is currently being taken to two new landfill sites, one of which is located only 150 metres from the country's only commercial airport. A law in the United States stipulates that this distance should be a minimum of six miles, due to the increased threat of bird strikes on planes departing or arriving, as birds are attracted to organic waste.


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In early January, a bird strike did occur at Lebanon's airport. The plane managed to land safely, but the government was soon asking hunters to shoot seagulls out of the sky, even though hunting is illegal. A judge ordered the site closed, only to open it again a few days later. 

Amid public pressure, the same judge recently ordered the site closed again within the next few months, but no alternative solution has been found. 

In the meantime, the rubbish crisis has prompted the emergence of eco-friendly alternatives by grassroots groups highlighting the importance of recycling. There has also been talk of installing incinerators to simply burn the rubbish.

But activists are not optimistic about the political will to solve the crisis in Lebanon, which was recently ranked the 136th most corrupt country out of 170 worldwide by Transparency International.

"The garbage crisis started a year and eight months ago now," the activist said. "By any logic, if there was a will to find a solution since then, they would have."

Source: Al Jazeera