Civilians Describe Experiences; Meager Government Response
May 2, 2013
The Lebanese government needs to end a situation in which families desperate to have their kidnapped or detained relatives released resort to vigilante kidnappings in return.
Nadim Houry, Middle East deputy director

(Beirut) – The Lebanese government has failed to take adequate measures to protect against, deter, and punish retaliatory kidnappings along sectarian lines in border regions. Human Rights Watch interviewed both victims and family members who carried out retaliatory kidnappings, prompted by alleged detentions and kidnappings of their relatives by the Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups.

Lebanese government authorities have helped to facilitate the release of victims kidnapped by families in Lebanon in some cases, but have not taken law enforcement measures either to prevent kidnappings or to prosecute the kidnappers in the cases Human Rights Watch documented in the border regions.

“The Lebanese government needs to end a situation in which families desperate to have their kidnapped or detained relatives released resort to vigilante kidnappings in return,” said Nadim Houry, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should keep working to secure the victims’ release but must also send a clear signal that these abductions are crimes that will be investigated and prosecuted.”

Lebanese authorities should investigate, arrest, and prosecute the peopleresponsible for the kidnappings, Human Rights Watch said. The government should base additional security forces in border areas to increase security and prevent kidnappings from taking place. The government has deployed security forces to border areas in some cases to locate kidnapped civilians but their presence has been temporary.

To the extent possible, the government should also work to bring about the release of people kidnapped or abducted by the Syrian government or armed opposition groups, including by conducting investigations and exerting political pressure.

Under international law, a country violates the prohibition against enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody, and then either denies it is detaining the person, or fails to disclose the person’s whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are at high risk of torture. In cases of alleged disappearance, Lebanese authorities should undertake independent and timely criminal investigations.

One kidnapping was carried out on April 1, 2013, by the relatives of Mohammed Hussein al-Ahmad, of Wadi Khaled in north Lebanon, who they believed was being held by the Syrian government. The relatives kidnapped eight Syrian Alawite workers in Wadi Khaled to pressure the Syrian government to release him.  

The relatives admitted the kidnapping. One of al-Ahmad’s relatives told Human Rights Watch by phone that the family believed that the Syrian government had detained al-Ahmad in Syria since he was last seen on March 2, 2012, but that efforts to secure his release through government channels had been unsuccessful. Al-Ahmad’s relative said:

 [On March 2] he left his house and never returned. The family later found out that he was detained in Syria. We don’t know how he got to Syria but our sources are credible and we are sure he is there. His father filed a petition with the public prosecutor’s office [in Lebanon] asking for his son’s phone records so that we could learn who called him on that day and try to find out what happened, but we never got a reply. His father also tried to contact several government departments and officials but nobody gave him any answers. So the family kidnapped eight Alawite workers, all men, to put pressure on the Syrian government [to release him].

Ahmed al-Ali, the deputy director of the Hishe Municipality in Wadi Khaled, confirmed the kidnappings of the eight workers to Human Rights Watch. “We [the municipality] are against these sorts of actions and the municipality is not affiliated to the kidnapping,” he said, but did not elaborate on any steps taken by Lebanese authorities.

On April 27, the National News Agency reported that al-Ahmad’s relatives had released the eight Alawite men. Al-Ahmad’s relative confirmed the release in a phone interview on April 30. Al-Ahmad is still missing.

In another incident, relatives of 45-year-old Hussein Kamal Jaafar, a truck driver and father of five, carried out a retaliatory kidnapping after he was detained by armed men. Jaafar was driving to deliver diesel gasoline in Arsal, Lebanon, at about 7 p.m. on March 24, when he was ambushed and kidnapped. Two men in a Jeep Grand Cherokee stopped his truck, and three other armed men appeared, he later told Human Rights Watch. The men told him to get out of his truck. Jaafar, who was released on April 12, told Human Rights Watch:

 They asked me if I was Sunni or Shia. I said that I was Sunni even though I am Shia. I told them my name was Khaled. One of them spoke on his walkie-talkie to Arsal. He said, ‘He is one of us,’ but the person on the other end said no and to take me. I started to run away but they got hold of me and put me in the car and blindfolded me.

 Jaafar said the men took him to a house across the border in Yabroud, Syria:

 They put me in a room that was just lit by candlelight and there was one big bald guy there who asked me if I was a terrorist. I said no. Then he kneed me in my ribs. He hit me so hard that from Sunday until Friday I couldn’t eat. I fell when he hit me and couldn’t move.

 When Human Rights Watch saw Jaafar on April 16 he was still unable to walk normally because of the pain he was still feeling in his ribs from this beating.

Jaafar said that his captors beat him intermittently throughout his detention, and forced him to call his family members so that his captors could make a million-dollar ransom demand.  “They said they were part of the Free Syrian Army but they are just a criminal terrorist gang,” Jaafar said. Some of them were defectors, but I never actually saw them going to fight with the Free Syrian Army.” 

Jaafar learned during one of these ransom phone calls that his family had kidnapped six Sunni men in Arsal in retaliation for his kidnapping. He was released after people in Arsal raised US$140,000 to pay his kidnappers to set him free. After his release, his family also released the six men they had kidnapped, he said.

Jaafar told Human Rights Watch that his relatives took matters into their own hands because they did not believe the government or security forces would be able to do anything to secure his release.

A second man from the Jaafar clan, Khedir Hussein Jaafar, told Human Rights Watch that his family had also carried out a kidnapping after armed men kidnapped him for seven days in Syria in May 2012. He had been with a Shia Syrian man, Abdullah Zein, in the town of Zeita in Syria, where Khedir Jaafar owns land. He and his relatives told Human Rights Watch that his family kidnapped approximately 70 Sunni men in Lebanon in retaliation to secure his release. As in Hussein’s case, a member of family said they did it because they did not believe the Lebanese government or security forces would be able to secure Jaafar’s release.

Khedir Jaafar told Human Rights Watch that his kidnappers identified themselves as members of al-Farouq Battalion of the Free Syrian Army and that they beat him severely while they held him captive. The kidnappers did not ask for money, he said.  He believes the kidnappers targeted him and Zein because they are Shia.

The recent kidnappings are consistent with a disturbing trend that underscores the urgency of investigations and prosecutions by the Lebanese authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

In August 2012 Human Rights Watch reported on the kidnapping of dozens of Syrian nationals and a Turkish man by members of the al-Meqdad extended family in Lebanon. Family members said the kidnappings were intended to pressure a group in Syria that claimed to be part of the opposition Free Syrian Army to release one of their relatives, Hassan al-Meqdad, a Lebanese national. 

In another episode, after unknown kidnappers abducted Suleiman Mohammed al-Ahmad, a Sunni, on June 9 in Hisah, Lebanon, and transferred him illegally into Syrian custody, his relatives kidnapped Shia and Alawite Lebanese and Syrian men in Lebanon in retaliation.

“As the conflict in Syria increasingly seeps across the border, the Lebanese government hasn’t done enough to maintain rule of law and security in the border regions,” Houry said.