The Lebanese army and internal security forces have arbitrarily detained and physically abused some Palestinian men fleeing the fighting in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since Sunday, more than 340 civilians have fled the camp in northern Lebanon, where fighting between the Lebanese army and the armed group Fatah al-Islam has entered its fourth week. The Lebanese army is interrogating many of the men as they leave the camp, and detaining those suspected of supporting or having information about Fatah al-Islam.
In some cases, Palestinian men who fled Nahr al-Bared have told Human Rights Watch that military interrogators ill-treated them in detention and during interrogations, apparently to extract information about Fatah al-Islam.
“Lebanese forces can question Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared about Fatah al-Islam, but resorting to physical abuse is clearly against Lebanese law and international human rights standards,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.
The army is interrogating some Palestinian detainees at the Kobbeh military base near Tripoli, about 16 kilometers from Nahr al-Bared. Other interrogations have taken place at checkpoints and private houses near the camp.
In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, the Lebanese military detained a 21-year-old Palestinian man from Nahr al-Bared for interrogation at different locations for four days. During the interrogations, he was at various times punched and slapped by army interrogators.
“They put me back in a cell and I slept blindfolded with my hands tied,” he told Human Rights Watch about his third night in detention. “I heard screams from other rooms: ‘My arm! My hand!’” The army gave him food twice in four days, he said.
In another case, the army interrogated three young Palestinian men in a private house near Nahr al-Bared camp. According to two of the young men, members of Lebanese military intelligence subjected them to kicks, punches and beatings with rifle butts.
“They beat me with their hands, feet and even their weapons on the arms, hands back, and even my face and legs,” one of the men told Human Rights Watch. “It lasted, on and off, for about three hours.”
“They threatened me with a knife that they would cut off my toes if I didn’t speak,” he said.
Other Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared told Human Rights Watch how they were detained and questioned for a few hours, but not subjected to ill-treatment, and were then released. They knew of other Palestinian men detained with them and believed that these men remain in detention.
A Palestinian man inside Nahr al-Bared camp told Human Rights Watch by phone on Tuesday that news of abuse by the security forces was a great concern to those who have stayed in camp.
“Some Palestinians who want to flee Nahr al-Bared may stay put for fear of beatings and abuse by the army when they leave,” said Whitson. “The Lebanese government must ensure that civilians can leave Nahr al-Bared safely and without fear of illegal detention or abuse.”
In addition to detaining men as they leave Nahr al-Bared camp, Lebanese security forces have arrested and, in some cases, abused Palestinians at checkpoints in various areas of Lebanon.
In one case, soldiers stopped a 27-year-old Palestinian man as he drove near Nahr al-Bared and beat him near their checkpoint. “They hit me on the back with the butt of a Kalashnikov; I was bleeding from the nose,” he told Human Rights Watch. “And then someone came, saying, ‘your blood will spill like the blood of our martyrs,’ and he kicked me. That’s when my teeth fell out.”
The government should also ensure that no Palestinians are subject to ill-treatment by the security forces, particularly when it appears to occur solely on the basis of their Palestinian identity, Human Rights Watch said.
According to the Lebanese army, 60 soldiers have died since fighting with Fatah al-Islam began on May 20. Eleven soldiers died and more than 100 were reportedly wounded over the past weekend alone.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 20 civilians have lost their lives in shelling and sniper fire from both sides.
The last two victims were Lebanese Red Cross workers, who died on Monday from an explosion at their first aid post about three kilometers from the northern entrance of the camp. The cause of the explosion remains unclear.
According to the United Nations, more than 30,000 Palestinians have fled Nahr al-Bared, most of them settling in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp. An estimated 3,000 civilians remain inside the camp.
Palestinians displaced from Nahr al-Bared frequently left the camp without their identity cards. Some with identity cards said they are afraid to travel for fear of detention and abuse.
“The Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared are caught in the middle of a terrible fight,” Whitson said. “Just because they have stayed in the camp this long doesn’t mean they are connected to Fatah al-Islam.”