(Beirut) - The Lebanese authorities should prosecute those involved in the mob killing on April 29, 2010, of Muhammad Msallem, an Egyptian suspected of murdering four people in Ketermaya, a village in the Shouf mountains, Human Rights Watch said today. The justice minister announced on April 30 that the authorities had identified 10 of those who took part in the mob killing, but security forces have not arrested anyone.
"Nothing can justify mobs taking the law into their own hands, not even the horrible murder of the Abu Merhi family," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Lebanese authorities are facing a test: if they don't reassert the rule of law by prosecuting those who killed a suspect who was entitled to the presumption of innocence, the law of the jungle will have won the day."
Yusef Abu Merhi, his wife, Kawthar, and their two granddaughters, Amina, 9, and Zeina, 7, were found murdered in their home on April 28. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) detained Msallem, an Egyptian who lived in a neighboring home, after they reported finding a bloodstained shirt and knife in his house. According to police leaks to the media, he reportedly confessed to the crime that evening.
On April 29, the police set off for the Abu Merhi home with Msallem, with the intention of having him re-enact the crime. When they arrived in the village, residents overpowered the seven policemen who accompanied Msallem and beat and stabbed him.
The security forces managed to extricate Msallem and drove him to the nearby Sibline Hospital, but the mob followed. According to media reports, the mob removed Msallem from the emergency room and killed him after overwhelming the police. They then stripped him to his underwear and hanged his body from an electrical post in the village square.
President Michel Sleiman, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, and Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar all strongly denounced the killing of Msallem and promised a crackdown.
"Whatever the feeling of the villagers, nothing can justify this type of reaction," Najjar said on a local television station. "We have the names of at least 10 people who took part in this horrible crime, and the courts must now do their work. No state of law can condone what happened."
Public Prosecutor Said Mirza confirmed that judicial authorities had received the names of 10 people suspected of being implicated in the mob violence. The suspects were recognized after video footage of the crime aired on television stations. Mirza said investigations were proceeding to identify the remaining suspects.
Baroud also criticized the way that the Internal Security Forces (ISF) had handled the situation. The National News Agency reported that the commander of the ISF, General Ashraf Rifi, took disciplinary measures against a number of ISF personnel for their "grave error in underestimating the situation and not providing necessary and sufficient protection for the murder suspect." However, Najjar said on May 4 that none of the officers had been arrested. Human Rights Watch urged the Lebanese authorities to investigate the ISF's failure to protect the suspect and to develop new guidelines to ensure that suspects are protected from retaliatory violence.
No one has been charged or taken into custody in connection with Msallem's murder. One Ketermaya resident told Human Rights Watch that he blamed the security forces for bringing the suspect back to the village when the villagers' "sorrow and anger were still boiling." Another villager said that justice had been served: "He killed an innocent family and now the village made him pay for it."
The National News Agency reported on April 30 that a police forensics team confirmed that DNA tests from Msallem's shirt and knife show that the blood belongs to the four victims.
"The question is one of law and due process," Houry said. "Msallem deserved to have his day in court like any other suspect, not to be killed by a mob when he was in the custody of the authorities."