As the first group of former South Lebanon Army (SLA) militiamen left Israel last week to resettle in Germany, Human Rights Watch called on German and Lebanese authorities to ensure that those who committed serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon are identified and brought to justice.
"Former SLA officers and soldiers who committed torture and other crimes should not have impunity abroad," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "They should be held accountable wherever they go -- and this requires earnest efforts on the part of both Lebanon and the international community."
In a letter to German foreign minister Joschka Fischer made public today, Human Rights Watch urged that preliminary investigations be undertaken to determine if any of the Lebanese entering Germany have been implicated in torture or other abuses in the former occupied zone. The letter recommended that such investigations should be wide-ranging, and not rely solely on information provided by the Israeli government or the former soldiers and officers themselves. The participation of Lebanese nongovernmental organizations, lawyers and victims in this process should be encouraged.
In a separate letter to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, also made public, Human Rights Watch recommended that the government establish an independent commission of inquiry to document rights violations that occurred during the occupation and identify those who ordered and committed such crimes. The findings of the commission should then be made available internationally so that judicial authorities in other countries can search for and investigate the alleged perpetrators.
In its letter to President Lahoud, the organization said that the process that Lebanon uses to identify those suspected of serious rights abuses should be "above reproach." It criticized conduct of ongoing military court trials of some 2,400 former militiamen and others as incompatible with international fair-trial standards. These trials involved prolonged incommunicado detention of defendants, allegations of torture, summary proceedings, and an absence of independent judicial oversight of the court.
"Information obtained in these quick trials, or during the interrogations that preceded them, should not be used to name names. Summary military justice is no substitute for an impartial inquiry that will be taken seriously by the international community," said Megally. Human Rights Watch added that those convicted in the military court should be afforded the opportunity to seek retrials in independent civilian courts with full due process guarantees.
Human Rights Watch also stressed to Germany that any alleged perpetrator of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law should not be returned to Lebanon unless the Lebanese government pledges publicly that that individual will not face interrogation in incommunicado detention and the risk of torture, trials that do not meet international fair-trial standards or the death penalty. In its letter to President Lahoud, the organization made the same recommendation.
A copy of the letter to Foreign Minster Fischer follows.
2 August 2000
Mr. Joschka Fischer
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Werderscher Markt 1
Dear Mr. Fischer,
Human Rights Watch is writing to urge your government to undertake preliminary investigations to determine if former members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) who are admitted to Germany for asylum and resettlement committed serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law against Lebanese citizens during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. At the same time, we must emphasize that this process should in no way undermine Germany's legal obligation not to return anyone to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened or there is the danger of being subjected to torture.
It was disclosed in the Israeli press on July 20 that the relocation to Germany of some 400 Lebanese who are currently in Israel would occur shortly. On July 31, the press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that the first group of former SLA militiamen and their families arrived in Germany that day for resettlement in Hamburg.
We recognize that many of the Lebanese who fled to Israel in May 2000 in the wake of the Israeli military withdrawal may have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their service in the SLA or other relationships with the Israeli occupation apparatus. The prevailing public mood in Lebanon, and particularly in south Lebanon, certainly remains hostile to such individuals. The government has opted for prosecutions in the military court and done little to promote post-occupation reconciliation and tolerance. The potential for physical violence or other forms of persecution of former SLA militiamen and others -- who continue to be widely described in Lebanon as "collaborators" -- has also been tacitly recognized by the military court, which is in the process of rapidly trying several thousand individuals for membership in the SLA and other offenses. The court has already sentenced hundreds of defendants to prison terms that are accompanied by an additional sanction which bans them from returning to their home communities for periods ranging from one to fifteen years after their release. The banning orders began to be issued after two men released by the court in June were violently attacked when they returned to their villages in the former occupied zone.
Human Rights Watch is concerned, however, that among the Lebanese arriving in Germany may be former SLA militiamen who tortured detainees at Khiam prison and other locations in the Israeli-occupied zone, engaged in hostage-taking of civilians, expelled individuals and entire families from their homes and villages, and forcibly conscripted men and boys into service in the SLA, which functioned as Israel's surrogate militia. These crimes were systematically practiced against the civilian populuation in the occupied zone as a matter of policy over two decades, and have been documented by international and Lebanese nongovernmental organizations. Lebanese who ordered or committed such crimes should not enjoy impunity in Germany. The legal burden is on German immigration and judicial authorities to see that such individuals are held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.
Under international law, every person has the right to seek political asylum as a refugee, with the exception of individuals who are known or suspected to have committed war crimes and other grave offenses. Article 1(F) of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Germany is a state party, specifically states that its protections "shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that (a) He has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes".
Accordingly, German authorities should carefully scrutinize the background of each former SLA militiaman entering its territory, with the aim of establishing with accuracy the person's identity, responsibilities, and activities during the Israeli occupation, beyond the data that may have been supplied by Israeli government sources and the militiamen themselves. The cooperation and assistance of knowledgeable and credible sources should be sought, both inside and outside of Lebanon, in order to obtain and confirm relevant information, and ascertain if any evidence exists linking specific individuals to war crimes. As part of this process, a mechanism could be established to encourage and enable other interested parties -- including Lebanese victims, lawyers, and nongovernmental organizations -- to provide documentation about specific individuals who have been implicated in torture and other abuses in the former occupied zone and are known to have left Lebanon.
Germany also has obligations under the refugee convention, the Convention against Torture, and the European Convention on Human Rights not to return individuals to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened or where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture. With regard to Lebanon, no one should be returned there for prosecution if he will face interrogation in incommunicado detention and the risk of torture; trials that do not meet international fair trial standards; or the death penalty. Human Rights Watch has recommended to the Lebanese government that it establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that occurred during the occupation of south Lebanon and make available its findings to the international community. We have stated clearly to the government that any perpetrators that the commission identifies should be tried fairly in civilian courts with all due process guarantees. Requests for the extradition of perpetrators living abroad should not be granted unless the Lebanese government can provide such assurances.
Germany's offer to provide refuge to Lebanese and their families who are unwilling to return home for fear of persecution is a commendable humanitarian response. In keeping with its international legal responsibilities, however, Germany should publicly pledge that it will undertake vigorous efforts to identify and bring to justice those Lebanese who have committed grave human rights offenses under international law, while ensuring that persons will be not be returned to Lebanon if they could face torture or threats to their life or freedom there.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and I look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
Prof. Dr. Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, Minister of Justice
Mr. Otto Schily, Federal Minister of the Interior
Mr. Juergen Chrobog, Ambassador of Germany to the United States
For more information contact:
Hanny Megally (New York): +1 212 216 1230
Virginia Sherry (New York): +1 212 216 1231
Hania Mufti (London): +44 20 7713 1995