RAS BAALBEK — There's a 140-kilometer strip of land on top of the mountains just north of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley that marks the border with Syria. It's here that ISIS has dug in, appropriating a remote corner of Lebanon where the terror group has accumulated militants, resources and hostages to gear up for an impending battle with Hezbollah-backed government troops.
This strip is a strategic area because it allows jihadists from ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, who are allies, to threaten seven small towns in the valley. Among the few who know well the imprecise boundaries of the terror groups' enclave in Lebanon is Talal Iskander, head of the International Red Cross. The organization operates in Ras Baalbek, rescuing those wounded in battle between ISIS and the Lebanese.
"We began work here at the end of 2012," Iskander explains. "The bloodiest phase was last fall when we received around 3,000 wounded from both sides. And the pace has continued with about 60 to 70 injuries a week. Not a day goes by without clashes along the front line between troops and ISIS."
There's a "safe zone" eight kilometers from Ras Baalbek where the Red Cross collects the wounded from both sides, bringing them back to the Sunni town still formally in the hands of the government — though support for ISIS is visible with posters and flags. It's when you leave the northernmost Lebanese town of Arsal in the direction of the mountains that you cross the invisible border with the so-called ISIS "caliphate" led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
"On the ISIS side, there are small isolated villages, refugee camps, a court administering justice on the basis of Sharia, and other ISIS offices," Iskander says, citing testimony from the wounded who ask him every day to go and help in the zone closed off by soldiers. ISIS has repeatedly made it known that they want to declare the birth of an "emirate" in Arsal to rival the capital of Beirut.
Lying in wait
The opinion of the Hezbollah commanders in Baalbek is that the ISIS "terrorists are shuffling their cards to prepare for battle when the weather changes." Presumably, when the snow-covered peaks thaw, the showdown will begin. ISIS has been preparing, arriving from the Syrian side with militiamen, food supplies and ammunition. Meanwhile, Hezbollah — which considers Bekaa Valley its sacred territory — is ready on the other side for a "cleansing operation" to annihilate the enemy, says a 45-year-old officer who requested anonymity.
Among the the jihadists' trump cards are 30 Lebanese soldiers who have been held hostage since August. Four have already been beheaded. One of these men was Mohammed Hamie, 25, the son of a Shia civil war veteran who had hoped for "bloody revenge against ISIS."
"My son's killers are barbarians, and Lebanon must react as Jordan did after the pilot was burned alive," says Hamie's father Maruf, sitting next to his other three children and a Kalashnikov. "We need to hit them hard, by hanging the terrorists we already have in prison and sending jets to destroy them in Arsal."
Maruf is ready to do his part and says he knows who killed his son. "It was the ISIS Emir to Arsal. It's Hujairi Mustafa also known as Abu Taqie, and he's a dead man walking. He ordered the beheading, and he will be killed, but only after his son dies so he can go through what I did," he says, giving voice to the desire for revenge that's in the air.
Just a few kilometers away, 28-year-old Adel Islaim decided to take up arms and defend his village of Britel from ISIS attacks two months ago. "It was early afternoon when I received a message on WhatsApp saying that ISIS were coming," he says. "I picked up my gun and went into the street. There were 4,000 of us, all the men in the village, and we went to meet them."
The caliphate's militiamen hit the town from above in the mountains with mortars, came down into the valley and killed eight Hezbollah men before they were beaten back. Among the Hezbollah members who rushed to give support to the residents was 27-year-old policeman Mohammed al-Masri. He climbed onto the roof of a house to show us where the attack came from. "We defended with Kalashnikovs, G3 and RPG launchers, but we know that they'll try to come back."
North of Bekaa, Hezbollah is coordinating the defense in front of the mountains. On the other side are the black flags of the caliphate. Further south, the only road leading to Beirut is guarded by soldiers, police and Lebanese intelligence — with dozens of checkpoints. Residents of the Christian village of Ksara feel besieged. "Hezbollah is protecting us because ISIS wants to kill us all," says Munir Dika, a local doctor.
The military is looking everywhere for young people, rented cars or bearded Syrians. They're tracking the car bombs that ISIS has managed to bring, six times now, from Arsal to Beirut — setting them off in the Shia Dahieh district of the capital, which Hezbollah has turned into a bunker where at least 500,000 people live. The outer perimeter is locked and closed by cement boulders, and inside there are large iron bars that can be closed at any time to stop cars entering. The Al Rasul Al Azzam hospital, where Hezbollah takes its wounded, is surrounded by towers and barbed wire.
Shia night patrols guard the outer perimeter of the nearby Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps to prevent Sunni jihadists from escaping. There is a suspicion that Islamic groups in the countryside are allied with ISIS cells. The armed Shia militants standing in front of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's house mark the point where buses leave to go to Syria, and posters of Hezbollah's fallen heroes and martyrs adorn the walls, lampposts and windows.
"This conflict against ISIS is so different from what we have fought before," says Hamza Akl Hamieh, a former collaborator of the late Ayatollah Khomeini who now lives in exile in Paris. He became a military leader of the Amal Movement in Lebanon, best known in Europe for a spate of hijackings between 1979 and 1982. "We have to defend Lebanon from a tribe of murderers," he says. "It will be hard, but they will lose."
Hence the ongoing preparations to regain the strip of land ISIS controls in the Bekaa mountains. The voices from the Beirut suburbs suggest that Hezbollah will have hundreds of soldiers ready to fight, and the orders have been given to "take no prisoners." The veterans of the 2013 battle of al-Qusayr expect fierce clashes. "Those who fight for ISIS are inhuman," one says. "They face bullets without showing any fear."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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