Persons identifying themselves as members of Hizballah abducted twenty men from their homes in Aitaroun village in the former Israeli-occupied zone on the night of June 6-7.
The organization documented that at least five of the men, all civilians, were transported to a secret detention facility, where they were blindfolded and interrogated. These five have since been released, after being held incommunicado for up to one week. Families of other abductees have had no information about the whereabouts of their relatives. Human Rights Watch also learned that the brother of one kidnapped man is being sought, reportedly by Hizballah, and is afraid to return to Aitaroun.
"Citizens in south Lebanon should not have to live in fear of any group that takes the law into its own hands," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Kidnapping is a criminal offense, and those who commit such crimes should be identified and brought to justice. Human Rights Watch urged the Lebanese government to condemn the kidnappings publicly and investigate the cases.
In some cases, the interrogators focused on the personal histories of the abductees, including the nature of their relationships with specific security officials from the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the Israeli-financed militia that rapidly collapsed in the wake of Israel's military withdrawal last month. For example, Human Rights Watch learned that interrogators sought to determine why one Aitaroun resident had been summoned to the SLA's security office in the village during the occupation, and if another man had met with an Israeli officer.
In at least one case, the kidnappers took steps to stifle any information about the reasons for the abductions. One man who was released and declined to provide his name told Human Rights Watch that he was questioned for four or five hours but could not say more than that. "They told us politely not to mention anything about the content of the interrogation," he said.
In separate interviews, several local residents speculated that the men were abducted and questioned on the basis of intelligence files left behind in the SLA's security office in Aitaroun after the withdrawal. These views were substantiated by the comments of a man who was released after one week. He told Human Rights Watch that he was interrogated three times while blindfolded and that it seemed his interrogator was making statements and asking questions based on information he was reading from a file. The wife of another victim testified that she visited HIzballah's office in Aitaroun and was told this about her husband: "Don't worry. He is with us. They treat them very well and they are not beaten." The woman said that she was also told that "every person who had a file in Aitaroun's SLA security office will be asked some questions and will return."
"Private justice is unacceptable in a civilized society," said Megally. "If Hizballah is indeed responsible for these abductions, it must release the victims immediately."
Residents were frightened by the manner in which the kidnappings took place, in the hours just before and after midnight, when most of the victims and their families were asleep.
From eyewitnesses accounts obtained by Human Rights Watch, it appears that the twenty men may have been abducted by separate groups of kidnappers. For example, in one case four armed men entered the house, did not conduct a search, but watched as the victim dressed. In another case, three armed men in civilian clothes arrived at the house but only one entered and instructed the victim to "come with us for one hour." In a third case, five men in civilian clothes who said they were from Hizballah came to the house; only two entered and a third stood by the door, holding a rifle. This house was not searched, and the kidnappers said that they wanted the victim to go with them "for five minutes."
Eyewitnesses provided additional details to Human Rights Watch about the kidnappings of three men still missing as of June 22:
Hussein Habib Khoreizat, 35, was taken from his home at about 11:30 at night on June 6. Men who identified themselves as Hizballah knocked at the door and demanded to be let in. Four entered the house and searched the rooms and closets, but did not remove anything. There were two cars outside the house. Hussein, dressed in pajama pants and a T-shirt, was then taken to one of the cars. The men said that he would be returned in five minutes. Since that time, his family has had no information on his whereabouts. Hussein reportedly did not serve in SLA, but one source said that SLA operatives had pressured him to serve as an informer. When he refused, they tore up the permit that allowed him to travel to Beirut from the occupied zone.
Mohammed Khoreizat, who is in his thirties, was abducted at about 11:45 p.m on June 6. Men who identified themselves as Hizballah knocked at the door and rang the doorbell, asking if Mohammed was home. They searched the house but did not confiscate anything. Mohammed was allowed to change out of his sleeping clothes and went with the men, who said that he would be back in five minutes. The family inquired about Mohammed with the security arm of Hizballah and the Lebanese army, who said they knew nothing about his case. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain if Mohammed had links of some kind to the SLA, but the militia attempted to forcibly conscript his brother Hasan in 1993. Hasan fled, and as a consequence his father was detained for three days in the SLA's security office in Aitaroun.
Shawki Sheikh Hussein, 25, was abducted from his home at approximately 2:45 on the morning of June 7. According to eyewitnesses, the family was awakened by knocking at the door. Four men entered the house while another two waited outside. The men, who were wearing military clothing and dark sunglasses, identified themselves as Hizballah. They asked for Shawki, and then searched the house. Two cars were outside the house and two other cars were on the road. Shawki was led to one of the cars and a sack was placed over his head. Since the kidnapping, the Lebanese army post in nearby Tibnin and the state security office in Bint Jbeil both reportedly said they have no information of his whereabouts. Two days after the abduction, several local policemen reportedly acknowledged that they knew about the case, but the next day the local police station said there was no information.
Shawki's brother Nabil was in the house at the time of the kidnapping. The next day, Hizballah reportedly came asking for Nabil, and returned several times, most recently on June 16. Nabil is afraid to return to Aitaroun.
It is unclear why Shawki was targeted. He completed compulsory military service in the Lebanese army, but prior to that, in 1994, the SLA forcibly conscripted him. His 67-year-old father described to Human Rights Watch how he was pushed to the ground and injured when he tried to prevent the militiamen from taking his son. Shawki's mother said she tried to follow the jeep and was also shoved and pushed to the ground. According to his parents, Shawki was held for one month at the SLA training center in Majeediyye and harshly beaten for refusing to wear the SLA military uniform. They said that he still has scars on his arms from cigarettes that were extinquished on his flesh. Shawki's brother Bilal was interrogated by the SLA for two hours in 1994, and then expelled from the occupied zone the next year, when he was eighteen years old. He completed compulsory service in the Lebanese army and did not return to Aitaroun until the Israeli withdrawal was completed in May. Since his brother's kidnapping, Bilal is also afraid to set foot in Aitaroun.
Human Rights Watch has documented SLA practices in the occupied zone that were in contravention of international humanitarian law, including forced recruitment of men and children into the militia, the expulsion of individuals and entire families, and torture of detainees held without charge in Khiam prison. Expulsions and torture are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.