Jacob Chagnon ‘17:
This week, we bring you a special edition of our global Member Highlights, intended to showcase the activists working in tandem with the drug policy reform movement. Moreover, we aim to emphasize the fact that you need not be a student, or formally affiliated with SSDP, to be a contributing ally.
It is my absolute pleasure to highlight fellow activist and friend Chiri Choukeir, a Beirut-based activist, journalist, and drug policy reform ally from Lebanon. Please enjoy her insightful and striking reflection on the state of drugs, policy, and activism in Lebanon in her own words below.
Chiri Choukeir ‘20:
Living in Lebanon is very similar to walking across a field of landmines, you never know where the next explosion might be, and it might be just under your feet.
As a journalist, photo-journalist, and photographer at Beirut’s An-Nahar Daily Newspaper, I have had my fair share of heartbreaking stories, reports of corruption and injustice, and many more horrific stories. I have learned to keep an eye over my shoulder, especially when writing about topics that are still labeled under the ‘taboo’ umbrella – and luckily for us, this umbrella only seems to get bigger. I have always considered myself as an activist and human rights advocate first and a journalist second.
It’s not uncommon to hear a person tell you a traumatic experience whether it involved drugs, LGBTQI+, or simple human rights. While Lebanon always prides itself on being a country that serves to “protect and preserve freedoms of expression”, we see the country turning into a dystopian police state out of Orwell’s books day by day.
What really caught my eye at the beginning of my career was the fact that rarely did local newspapers highlight any LGBTQI+ issues, topics, human rights violations. The terms local newspapers use are always very harsh, criticizing, and offensive.
While working with the Lebanese Mental and Sexual Health Organization (LebMASH), I remember during one of the lectures on LGBTQI+ safety in Lebanon, the lecturer made a joke about how we could all be arrested at this moment. The room filled with chuckles, but you could see the paranoia and everyone looking over their shoulders. We were perfectly safe, and the week passed without any arrests, however, the lectures, testimonies, research papers really shook us to the core of how severe the treatment of LGBTQI+ individual and drug users could be in Lebanon.
LGBTQI+ individuals face severe discrimination in the healthcare sector, some doctors today still refuse to treat LGBTQI+ individuals, and even decide to reject any cases of STDs in the hospital. This is also considered a step-up from the previous violations committed by the Lebanese government regarding LGBTQI+ individuals. Up until 2014, the Lebanese government used to practice an “egg test” against LGBTQI individuals where they would insert a metallic egg-shaped object anally in order to determine if the individual is homosexual.
One of the lectures as I remember was given by Skoun, Lebanon’s non-profit organization that offers prevention and treatment for drug users. The director of Skoun talked about the severity in which drug users (LGBTQI+ individuals especially) get their rights completely violated.
In a country like Lebanon, if you are arrested for carrying weed or Hashish and you know just the right person to call, you would be let out instantly with a simple call to your “wasta” (A wasta is a father, friend, or relative who knows someone that knows someone that with good relations to the government and would the person out of any legal trouble). If you are a citizen with no “wasta” or an immigrant, on top of the abuse and ill-treatment, you will also most likely be charged with dealing and not just using drugs.
I can recall over 40 horrifying stories told to me by people who have never done drugs, and even never touched a cigarette who have been called upon to come down to the police station and have not been told the reason. Once they were inside, they were not allowed to have a lawyer, a phone call, or any of their rights. From torture to brutal and long investigations, sometimes they keep you for multiple days (which is illegal). In the end, if they don’t get a confession out of you, they can easily forge or beat their way to a confession.
It is in their interest to increase the number of inmates as each inmate has to pay for their stay at the prison, in addition to fees, bribes, and the list could go on.
While my work consisted of editing and directing articles for An-Nahar Daily Newspaper concerning Skoun initiatives, my main focus was always the LGBTQI+ community. I held both very close to me and always made sure to report, investigate, and try to convey the truest image possible to the readers. However, lately more and more activists, organizations, and initiatives have been making immense progress in both drug policy and LGBTQI+ rights, giving Beirut hope in improvement and reform.
In the weeks following the massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Chiri’s opening words have assumed a new poignance as international media brings attention to the human rights violations and corruption existing within Lebanon. The frustration in her tone is a justifiably common attitude among Lebanese change-makers. Nonetheless, as her closing remarks suggest, civil society efforts surrounding drug policy reform are alive and thriving, with significant successes and advancements made in recent years
Students for Sensible Drug Policy is fortunate to have an ally like Chiri Choukeir on our side, and I hope this piece inspires the network to think expansively about our advocacy role, and opening the network more broadly to associated activists.
To learn more about Chiri, please visit her An-Nahar journalist page here, where you can find coverage about local and international politics, Lebanese musicians and nightlife, and more! Additionally, you can find articles on “Support. Don’t Punish” and Skoun, on which she collaborated and edited. She can be contacted at Chirichoukeiryo@gmail.com.
To learn more about the complex reality of drugs and policy in Lebanon, as well as the organizations, activists, and individuals striving to enact change in the country, keep posted for our up-and-coming Country Highlight feature on Lebanon!