Lebanon MPs meet in hall as protesters stage car convoy

Beirut (AFP) –


Lebanon's parliament sat Tuesday in a conference hall to allow for social distancing between lawmakers amid the coronavirus pandemic, while outside anti-government protesters demonstrated in a car convoy.

As the country struggles with a battered economy, MPs approved a $120 million loan from the World Bank to help fight COVID-19, which has officially infected 677 people and killed 21 nationwide.

Also on the agenda of the three-day session were proposals for a divisive general amnesty, to legalise cannabis for medical use, and to lift immunity for ministers and lawmakers to allow prosecutions over alleged corruption.

Outside the venue, dozens of protesters drove a noisy convoy of cars covered in slogans, drivers honking their horns and passengers brandishing the national flag and leaning out of the windows in face masks.

They defied a stay-at-home order to protest deteriorating living conditions and maintain pressure on a political elite under fire since mass protests erupted last October.

Lebanon is grappling with its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, compounded by the lockdown, and poverty has risen to 45 percent of the population according to official estimates.

The rallies had petered out after a new government took office in January, and demonstrators have mostly remained at home since the coronavirus lockdown started mid-March.

But on Friday, hundreds again protested in the city of Tripoli to mark six months since the street movement started to demand an overhaul of a ruling class widely deemed inept and corrupt.

- Discord over amnesty plan -

The lawmakers met in a conference hall at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, with a capacity of up to 1,000 people, as part of measures to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Among their 66 items to discuss, legalising growing marijuana for medical purposes was expected to be approved by a majority as it could generate revenue for the indebted state's coffers.

Lebanon bans growing, selling and consuming cannabis, but its underground production in the country's east has developed over decades into an illicit multi-million-dollar industry.

No consensus was in sight, however, for a general amnesty to free thousands of detainees and to suspend arrest warrants for thousands more.

Supporters -- which include Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal as well as the Sunni Future Movement -- say an amnesty could lessen overcrowding in jails housing 9,000 prisoners.

But its detractors, including the president's Christian parliamentary bloc, allege the bill is merely an attempt to boost popular support.

The amnesty has long been a demand of the families of some 1,200 so-called "Islamist detainees", most of whom hail from the Sunni-majority city of Tripoli, where the former premier's Future Movement is dominant.

They are accused of carrying out crimes including fighting and assaulting the army, taking part in clashes in the city, and planning explosives attacks.

Families have also clamoured for the release of thousands more detainees from the eastern regions of Baalbek and Hermel, where Hezbollah and the parliament speaker's Amal are powerful.

Most of these are accused of drug-linked crimes including growing hashish illegally, or other offences such as stealing cars.