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Lebanon: arrest of standup comedian Nour Hajjar sparks fears despite release

Beirut already undergoing economic and political paralysis, was struck this week by arrest of a standup comic who joked about Lebanon's army and offended religious figures five years ago.
Nour Hajjar

BEIRUT — Lebanese standup comedian Nour Hajjar was released on Tuesday evening after less than 24 hours in jail over a joke he made five years ago that that offended the religious establishment.

Lebanon's top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat had ordered Hajjar's arrest on Tuesday and released him that evening on the condition he keep the court informed of his whereabouts.

The controversy started on Friday, when Hajjar was summoned by the military police who questioned him for 11 hours over a video of him telling a joke about the Lebanese army, his lawyer told local news outlets.

On Tuesday morning, Hajjar returned to the military police headquarters in Baabda, near Beirut, to sign a bail bond. However, he was unexpectedly transferred to the Palace of Justice without the presence of his lawyer. There, Judge Ghassan Oueidat ordered Hajjar’s arrest after questioning him over a lawsuit filed against him by Dar al-Fatwa — Lebanon's Muslim Sunni authority — with regard to another five-year-old video in which Hajjar makes fun of his mother’s actions during a Muslim funeral.

Hajjar’s videos were screened on the awk.word comedy platform. The platform’s founder, Dany Abou Jaoude, was also asked to appear before the military police on Monday. Abou Jaoude was later released on bail.

In the video in question, Hajjar refers to soldiers who have had to work as delivery drivers to make ends meet amid the crippling economic crisis in the country.

“Have you noticed that all [delivery drivers] are in the army?” Hajjar says. “Can you imagine if Israel strikes us and the whole army is at Toters [local delivery service]? We'll see 30 mopeds arrive at the border. One rocket, and we'll be splashing Israel with honey-mustard sauce.”

In the older video, Hajjar tells a story about how his mother asked a Muslim sheikh to recite his favorite Quranic verse during a funeral, treating the sheikh like a deejay.

Hajjar’s case stirred the ire of rights groups and activists.

Amnesty International's deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa Aya Majzoub tweeted about the case. “No one should be detained for peacefully expressing their opinion, no matter how offensive or insulting others find that opinion,” she wrote.

Social media users also expressed indignation at the judiciary for arresting a comedian over jokes at a time when politicians and officials accused of corruption continue to roam free in the country.

Dozens of activists gathered in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut on Tuesday to demand Hajjar's release.

There have been growing concerns over freedom of expression in Lebanon. Last week, a hard-line Christian group attacked a queer-friendly bar in Beirut as the LGBTQ community in the country faces increasing hate speech instigated by officials.

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