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Social media increases chances of Israeli-Lebanese communication.

Summary: In mid-January, Lebanese national Haig Melikian was arrested by security forces on charges of communicating with Israelis -- a treasonous act while Lebanon remains in a state of war with its southern neighbor.

BEIRUT: In mid-January, Lebanese national Haig Melikian was arrested by security forces on charges of communicating with Israelis -- a treasonous act while Lebanon remains in a state of war with its southern neighbor. Rumors quickly floated that he was taken in for speaking with Israelis over social media, or that he had fallen into a trap of supplying drone footage of Lebanese territory to suspicious inquisitors.

The Daily Star was unable to verify any of the claims.

The case is not uncommon. In the past four months alone, The Daily Star reported over six individuals have been detained by State Security on charges of communicating or collaborating with Israel. But with the rise of the internet and globalization, innocent interactions between Lebanese and Israelis have become more difficult to avoid.

According to a statement from State Security, Melikian, who has a strong personal and professional social media presence, had been found to be communicated with people in Israel.

The agency alleged that the Lebanese man had planned to meet the Israelis outside Lebanon with the intention of obtaining a non-Lebanese passport to enter "occupied Palestine under the pretext of attending a sports activity."

State Security added that Melikian "expressed support" for traveling to Israel and "normalizing" the Jewish state.

Melikian was indicted Thursday by Military Investigative Judge Fadi Sawan and is awaiting trial. Yet two sources close to him told The Daily Star there had been a mistake and expected him to be released within the next few weeks.

Friends close to Melikian also had their doubts about his culpability.

"We were all really shocked when we found out what happened," one friend told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity. "He had a good life, he enjoyed what he was doing. It is all very strange, why would he mess everything up like that?"

Melikian was described as outgoing, adventurous and overall "normal" by his friends. He worked as a social media manager at an outdoors store in Zouk Mosbeh about 20 km north of Beirut.

Others speaking anonymously agreed that the situation was bizarre and seemed out of character. Melikian's personal Instagram boasts over 13,000 followers subscribed to his account, exhibiting photos of Lebanon's most pristine natural sites.

Social media, however, is not the only avenue nowadays through which Lebanese are more likely to encounter Israelis.

"I often meet Israelis when I travel to Europe," one Lebanese national told The Daily Star anonymously. "It's an interesting experience."

Others, meanwhile, admitted to speaking to Israelis over the internet while in Lebanon.

A quick flip through the popular location-based dating app Tinder shows that users in Beirut can easily be matched with Israelis.

When asked whether app developers had considered the possibility of Tinder being used to frame individuals for treason, a spokesperson said, "Our goal is to make it easier to connect with and meet new people; and that goal is the same for every member in our global user base. If a user is based close to another country, and their distance preferences include a radius that crosses a border, they will be shown all potential matches that meet their criteria -- regardless of whether a potential match is located in another country."

Whether or not benign interactions will earn you prison time, however, is not always clear.

According to Chadia El Meouchi, managing partner at Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm, theoretically, any interaction with an Israeli is subject to prosecution.

Under the 1943 Lebanese criminal code, all communication with members of an "enemy state" is banned, she explained. Under the 1955 Israeli boycott law that is enforced by the Economy and Trade Ministry, Lebanese nationals are forbidden to enter any financial or trade agreement directly or indirectly with Israel.

"So between the code and the boycott law, you pretty much can have no interaction," Meouchi said. "They're very all-encompassing."

However, Meouchi could not say whether all interactions between Lebanese and Israelis are consistently prosecuted.

"I would guess it is done on a case-by-case basis without a clear policy on when an interaction might be prosecuted and when it is not. But by law, anyone can, and must be."

Whether or not the evidence obtained to prove espionage and treason is always admissible also remains unclear.

According to Mohamad Najam, co-director of the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Law 140, also known as the "eavesdropping law," allows for the interception of all electronic communication in cases of threats against national security.

"But it's not designed to be a big data and mass surveillance tool," he said, adding that he believes the law is in need of an update.

Referring to the bungled General Security hacking incident that was exposed last month, Najam said, "What we can say and what we learned from 'Dark Caracal' and other research we've reported on, is that it doesn't seem that Law 140 is even being implemented. It doesn't seem that the privacy of citizens has been respected, whether someone has been accused of conspiracy or not."

Given that the means of obtaining information may be illegal, such evidence used in a case could also be deemed inadmissible. "This is something we're now trying to research more and investigate," Najam said.

Meouchi, however, said that in practice, with cases with national security at stake, preservation of that security would always come first.

"In our criminal procedural law, we do have the principle that evidence should be obtained legally to be admissible but public order and public policy will always trump everything else. Seeing that the state's security is of the highest public law and order, it would trump any regular evidence laws."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Feb 9, 2018
Words:989
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