Bechara Asmar, the former head of the General Labor Union was released Monday after 10 days in prison, charged for making offensive comments involving late former Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.
Asmar was seen in a leaked video earlier this month, degrading jokingly Cardinal Sfeir with five of his colleagues, unaware that he was being recorded and that his microphone was on.
Asmar's disrespectful 'joke' following the death of a national religious leader of the magnitude of Former Patriarch Sfeir could not pass as trivial. It shook both the political scene as well as the Maronite Communities, locally and internationally.
Public condemnations were numerous, demanding his arrest and removal from his position. From the Maronite League and Diaspora Institute to the Future Movement and several politicians and lawmakers, the reaction was unanimous. Lawsuits for slandering were filed, and Asmar was arrested. The five individuals who had shared his joke were also arrested, questioned and then released.
However, upon the request of Patriarch El-Rahi, the Maronite League and the Maronite Diaspora retracted their lawsuits this week, and charges were dropped, freeing Asmar from jail.
Moreover, Asmar’s detention raised public debate over freedom of expression in Lebanon.
The incident raised a lot more questions, in particular, if the slandering comments would have been deemed a crime if he was not videotaped. In fact, Asmar had told reporters that 'if people should be accounted for their words, everyone should go to jail too.'
However, we do get accounted 'for our words' in Lebanon when defamation, slandering, or dishonoring is involved. In fact, under the Lebanese Penal Code, articles 582-584, defamation is a criminal offense. Just early this year, a journalist of a prominent Lebanese newspaper, Hani H. Nsouli, has been charged under the same law for defaming a political figure.
As for Bechara Asmar, his lawyer Bilal Al-Husseini told the reporters that the judge had listened to the testimonies of four of Asmar’s colleagues, all who claimed no intent of offense by Asmar; some saying that it was a joke, and others stating that it was a “slip of a tongue."
Lawyer Al-Husseini took it even further, claiming a conspiracy against his client, “The attack on Bechara Asmar is a political attack to cut him off from his role in the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers.” He added that the late patriarch “was insulted dozens of times in his life and forgave all ... so stop crucifying Bechara Asmar."
As for the general public, opinions on the incident were divided between two opposed headlines, one for freedom of speech and 'taking a joke' and one against insulting the dead and "the men of God".
Some are even claiming that Asmar may have been detained for inciting sectarian strife. While rumors with scandals are usually many, Asmar did resign from his position and with the charges dropped, he was just released on bail of 500,000 L.L
Moving forward, the real questions now are: Who is going to be replacing Asmar at the head of the General Labor Union? Was that the best move for the union? And was this incident a plot to remove Asmar from his position as he claims?
The answers, unfortunately, are not available now, but who knows what surprises Lebanon hides for us this summer.