Lebanon’s judiciary should investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment of nine detainees whose trial before a military court began on April 21, Human Rights Watch and CLDH (Lebanese Center for Human Rights) said today.

The nine stand accused of forming an illegal group and conspiring to commit crimes against the state with the aim of inciting sectarian strife. They are also charged with possession and transfer of weapons and explosive material and planning to assassinate the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Human Rights Watch and CLDH interviewed seven of the nine detainees and monitored their trial on April 21.

Lebanese soldiers and plainclothes officers arrested the nine accused over a three-day period starting on March 31, 2006. The detainees told Human Rights Watch and CLDH that, at the moment of arrest, army members blindfolded them and transferred them to the Ministry of Defense, where Army Intelligence detained them until Friday April 7, 2006. During their time at the ministry, they were denied access to counsel and to their families. Most of them did not even know that they were at the Ministry of Defense until after they left it.

The nine detainees are: Ghassan Shehab al-Suleiman al-Slaybi, 45; Muhammad Ghassan al-Suleiman al-Slaybi (son of Ghassan), 20; Yussef Munir Kobrosli, 32; Ibrahim Shehab al-Suleiman al-Slaybi (brother of Ghassan), 36; Ziad Tarek Yamout, 26; Safi Muhammad Ibrahim `Arab, 35; Siraj al-Din Munir al-Suleiman al-Slaybi, 23; `Ali Amin Khaled, 31; Ahmad `Isam al-Rashid, 22.

Torture Allegations during Detention at Ministry of Defense

Four of the detainees allege that their interrogators tortured them during their detention at the Ministry of Defense in order to force them to confess, while others say they were being ill-treated and intimidated. Ghassan Slaybi told Human Rights Watch and CLDH that when he first arrived at the Ministry of Defense, armed guards hit him with a thick wooden stick on his back and later tortured him by placing him on an electric chair. He also alleged that his interrogators threatened to harm his wife if he did not cooperate. His son Muhammad, 19, who was arrested at the same time, also alleged that his interrogators hit him on the soles of his feet and suspended him in the extremely painful “balanco” position (hanging by the wrists, which are tied behind the back), in order to extract confessions from him.

While the other five detainees did not report being tortured at the Ministry of Defense, they told Human Rights Watch and CLDH that the interrogators frequently punched them during their questioning and that they were fearful during the whole week they spent at the ministry because they were blindfolded and completely disoriented. A number of them said they signed a confession without actually reading it.

“The Lebanese judiciary should investigate these serious allegations and hold those responsible accountable,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “No verdict based on the confessions offered by these men under these circumstances will have any credibility.”

Reports of Torture and Lack of Investigation

The first reporting of the detainees’ torture emerged publicly on July 9, 2006 in a report in al-Balad newspaper. Al-Balad published another report on December 23, 2006, in which it reprinted a letter from the nine detainees in which they said they were tortured. Despite these public reports, the Lebanese judiciary did not take any steps to investigate the allegations.

On April 21, 2007, the nine defendants appeared before the Military Tribunal in Beirut. A number of them told the five-member panel that their interrogators extracted their confessions by torture and intimidation. The presiding judge allowed the defendants to describe their ordeal and in some instances asked whether they received medical care, but he did not order an investigation into the allegations of torture.

As a party to the Convention against Torture, Lebanon is obligated to “ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed.” Lebanese authorities must also ensure that anyone who alleges being subjected to torture “has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities.”

Article 401 of the Lebanese Penal Code requires that anyone who “severely beats someone with the desire to obtain a confession about a crime or information regarding it will be imprisoned from three months to three years.”

“We recognize that there are real fears in Lebanon of people arming themselves; however, extracting confessions by torture will not make Lebanon any safer,” the two human rights organizations added.

Past Accounts of Torture at Ministry of Defense

The allegations of torture and abuse of the nine detainees at the Ministry of Defense correspond with past reports of such practices. In October 2006, Solida issued a report documenting the various types of torture practiced at the Ministry of Defense between 1992 and 2005.

“The Ministry of Defense continues to be a symbol of fear in Lebanon,” said Marie Daunay, President of CLDH. “It is time for the Ministry to get out of the business of torture.”

At the time of arrest, the Ministry of Defense did not allow any independent organization to visit detainees. The Lebanese authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reached an agreement on February 21, 2007 to allow the ICRC to visit all the prisons in Lebanon, including the Ministry of Defense detention center.

Inadequacy of Trial before Military Court

Human Rights Watch and CLDH also expressed concern that the nine detainees were being tried before a military court as opposed to the ordinary criminal courts, and that independent monitors and family members were denied access to the courtroom. The two organizations said that the trial of civilians by military courts should be very exceptional and occur only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

Lebanon’s military courts do not meet such conditions. In 1997, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted, in its Concluding Observations on Lebanon, its concern regarding “the procedures followed by these military courts, as well as the lack of supervision of the military courts’ procedures and verdicts by the ordinary courts.”

Background

Following the initial week at the Ministry of Defense, officials in the Lebanese Army transferred the nine detainees to the Military Tribunal where they met with the military investigative judge, Rachid Mezher. The detainees were able to see their families and their lawyers at this point. A number of detainees told Human Rights Watch and CLDH that Judge Mezher threatened with sending them back to the Ministry of Defense if they did not cooperate with the investigation.

After spending a few days at the detention facility affiliated with the Military Tribunal, the Lebanese Army transferred them to Lebanon’s main prison in Roumieh, where they remain to this date.

The four that reported being tortured at the Ministry of Defense are: Ghassan al-Slaybi; Muhammad al-Slaybi (son of Ghassan); Ziad Yamout; and Siraj al-Slaybi.

Ghassan al-Slaybi’s treatment appears to be the harshest. He told Human Rights Watch and CLDH: “I was put on the electric chair on the first night I arrived at the Ministry of Defense.” After his arrival to the prison in Roumieh, military officials transferred him two more times to the Ministry of Defense. In early May 2006, members of the Military Intelligence moved him from Roumieh to the Ministry of Defense, where he spent approximately six days. During this time, his interrogators reportedly placed him again on the electric chair and made him sign a second confession without allowing him to read it. According to al-Slaybi, this second confession implicated the other detainees in acts that they did not commit. After he signed the second confession, army officials returned al-Slaybi to his cell in the Roumieh prison.

In August 2006, during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, members of the Military Intelligence took him for a third time to the Ministry of Defense. However, this time, al-Slaybi indicated that they did not torture him or make him sign a new confession.

Muhammad al-Slaybi, Ghassan’s son, indicated that he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment for the first three days of detention at the Ministry of Defense. He described being suspended in the “balanco” position on two separate occasions during this period. Muhammad told the court that he denied the confession he made at the Ministry of Defense, as it was taken under torture.

Siraj al-Slaybi, a relative of Ghassan, told Human Rights Watch and CLDH that his interrogators beat him and subjected him to electrical shocks during his stay at the Ministry of Defense. He said that “after four days in the Ministry of Defense, I told them, ‘write whatever you want.’” Appearing before the court, Siraj denied the confession extracted at the Ministry of Defense by stating, “if I answered ‘I don’t know,’ I would get beaten.”

While Human Rights Watch and CLDH did not meet with Ziad Yamout, one of the other detainees, one of his lawyers said that officials working in the Ministry of Defense also subjected him to severe beatings and torture. He recanted his confession before the court, and said that he had been severely beaten.