(Beirut) –The Lebanese authorities should immediately release Ismael Sheikh Hassan, an urban planner detained by Military Intelligence on August 18, 2010, or promptly charge him with a recognizable crime, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two of Sheikh Hassan’s friends expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that his detention may stem from an article he published in May in the Lebanese daily As-Safir, in which he criticized public authorities and the army for their handling of the reconstruction of the refugee camp destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, an armed Islamist group, in 2007.

“If Ismael Sheikh Hassan’s ‘crime’ is criticizing the authorities in print, then they should immediately release him,” said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. “In the meantime, Lebanese Military Intelligence should respect Ismael Sheikh Hassan’s due process rights and allow him to contact his family and a lawyer immediately.”

Sheikh Hassan was detained as he attempted to visit the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Military Intelligence held Sheikh Hassan incommunicado for 24 hours before friends received information that he had been transferred to the Military Police at the Qubba military base in northern Lebanon. He has not been allowed to contact his family or a lawyer.

Sheikh Hassan, 30, has been volunteering for more than two years with the Nahr el Bared Reconstruction Commission, a community-based organization that is working to involve the local Palestinian refugee population in the reconstruction plans for the camp.

The detention of Sheikh Hassan follows a number of detentions of journalists and bloggers by Military Intelligence. On August 11, Military Intelligence summoned Hassan Oleik, a journalist with al-Akhbar newspaper. Intelligence officers interrogated him at the Defense Ministry for six hours about an article referring to an alleged conversation between Defense Minister Elias Murr and the country’s army commander, Jean Kahwaji, concerning a suspected Israeli spy.

The media reported that the day the article came out, Murr said, “Anyone attacking army officers by name or false information will be arrested and will come under investigation to find out who is behind him.” Military Intelligence released Oleik after his interrogation but he may still face charges.

In March, Military Intelligence also interrogated a blogger, Khodor Salemeh, for posting a series of articles in which he criticized the Lebanese army, the country’s “confessional” system of government, and the three heads of state. The interrogations focused on his criticism of the president. Salemeh was released after being questioned.

Under Lebanese law, Military Intelligence does not have the authority to investigate criminal acts, since it is not designated as having the qualities of a judicial police (Art. 38 of Code of Criminal Procedure). Under Article 4 of the Law regulating the General Administration of the Army, Military Intelligence’s role is, rather, to “investigate dangers that affect the security of the army.”

“Military Intelligence has no authority – and no business – to detain people for articles they wrote,” Houry said. “If Lebanese authorities don’t stop such extra-legal conduct, the country risks becoming like so many of its neighbors, where powerful intelligence agencies consider themselves above the law.”