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Human Rights Watch called on Israel to release immediately all Lebanese it holds as hostages and to compensate them for their unlawful detention.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday said that he will seek an amendment to Israeli law to allow him, as minister of defense, to order the continued detention of Lebanese hostages. The Israeli cabinet is scheduled to meet today to discuss the matter, and the speaker of the Knesset has already said he would convene an emergency session to vote on any proposed amendments.
"Hostage-taking is a war crime,"said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "No domestic legislation can change that."

Barak's statement came in response to a Supreme Court ruling yesterday dismissing a challenge to the court's April 12 ruling ordering the release of eight of the hostages. The earlier ruling, which is applicable to all of the hostages held in Israel, found that the hostages were not a danger to state security and that their detention as "bargaining chips" was illegal.

"Israel's highest court has acknowledged that these detainees should be released," Megally said. "The Israeli government should admit its wrongdoing and immediately release them."

The fifteen hostages are part of a larger group of twenty-one hostages kidnapped from Lebanon by Israel and the SLA beginning in the mid-1980s. Israel has conditioned the release of the hostages to information leading to the return of Israeli POWs and MIAs. Five of the twenty-one were released in December 1999, and a sixth hostage, reported to be mentally ill, was released on April 5.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has said he will seek to renew the administrative detention of at least two hostages, religious leader Sheikh `Abd al-Karim Obeid and militia leader Mustafa al-Dirani. Under the Emergency Powers (Detention) Law of 1979, Israel can hold administrative detainees indefinitely without charge or trial. Obeid has already spent almost eleven years in administrative detention; al-Dirani will have been held for six years in May. Although Israel alleges that both Obeid

and al-Dirani held leadership positions in Lebanese resistance organizations, and that al-Dirani at one time had custody of missing Israeli soldier Ron Arad, neither has ever been charged with a crime.

"From the beginning Israel admitted that it was holding Obeid and al-Dirani hostage," Megally said. "Calling them administrative detainees will not disguise the fact that they remain hostages."

Human Rights Watch also expressed deep concern over the conditions in which Obeid and al-Dirani are held. Despite credible reports that some Lebanese hostages have been tortured in Israeli custody, Israel has refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor their treatment.

In March Zvi Rish, a lawyer for al-Dirani, filed a civil case against the Israeli government asking for an NIS 6,000,000 (US$1,473,900) compensation for torture and ill-treatment al-Dirani suffered while in Israeli custody. The case alleges that during the first month of his interrogation al-Dirani was raped, sodomized with a wooden club, violently shaken, beaten, deprived of sleep, bound in painful positions, and left covered in his own feces for several days as "plain and simple vengeance."

"Israel is legally obligated investigate charges of torture and mistreatment and bring those responsible for any abuses to justice," Megally said. "All the hostages should be compensated for their unlawful and arbitrary detention."

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