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(Beirut) - Lebanon's security forces should stop detaining Syrian refugees who cross the border into Lebanon to escape violence and persecution in their country, Human Rights Watch said today. Lebanese authorities should instead provide them with at least temporary asylum, and above all refrain from deporting them back to Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch documented the detention by Lebanon's security forces of nine Syrian men and one child since May 15, 2011, allegedly for crossing illegally into Lebanon. Relatives and friends of the 10 told Human Rights Watch that the detained Syrians had fled out of fear of being arrested or shot at by Syria's army and border police. At least seven of them are currently in the custody of General Security, Lebanon's security agency responsible for foreigners, according to relatives and friends. The men have committed no recognizable crimes in Syria that would justify their detention or repatriation, to Human Rights Watch's knowledge.

"Syria welcomed many Lebanese fleeing war back in 2006," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "Now it's time to return the favor. Lebanon should be offering immediate refuge to Syrians fleeing death or torture in their country."

Sending asylum seekers and refugees back to Syria is refoulement, Houry added, and would make Lebanon complicit with any harm suffered at the hands of Syria's security services.

Syrians fleeing the towns of Tal Kalakh and Arida started arriving to Lebanon in early May but their numbers have increased since May 14, when Syria's army and security forces intensified their attack on Tal Kalakh. Lebanese mukhtars, locally elected officials, in the border area known as Wadi Khaled estimate that 3,500 Syrians refugees are currently present in their communities.

On May 15, the Lebanese army detained Khaled Shuwaity and his son Muhammad, two Syrian nationals, at a checkpoint near the coastal town of Deir Ammar, a friend of theirs told Human Rights Watch . "They had women and children relatives with them, but the military only detained the two men," he said, basing his information on what the family members had told him. According to the source, the military at the checkpoint transferred the two detainees to the Military Intelligence center near Tripoli, which in turn referred them to the Military Police in Qubba. The Military Police later transferred them to the Taatour Police station in Baddawi, where one the detained men's friend was able to visit them. They remain in detention.

On May 16, the Lebanese Army detained six Syrian nationals in the village of Buqay`a, in Wadi Khaled. The six are Mahmud al-Yusef, Ahmad al-Yusef, Shehadeh al-Yusef (who is, sources tell Human Rights Watch, a 13-year old child), Khaled al-Yusef, Muhammad al-Ali, and Ahmad Sulayman. According to a Lebanese with whom they had stayed in Buqay`a the six had escaped Tal Kalakh on May 14. The army detained with them at least four Lebanese nationals who were released on May 18 without charge. One of the released Lebanese told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese army had transferred the Syrians to General Security on May 18. He described the arrests:

At around 11 p.m. at night, the army came and entered a number of homes in Buqay`a. I don't know what prompted the house raids. They arrested the six Syrians and four Lebanese. They released all of us Lebanese on May 18 but transferred the Syrians to General Security. I worry that they will deport them back to Syria.

On May 17 the Lebanese police in Halba, a large town near Lebanon's border, detained `Ala' Jihad al-Omar, a young man from Tal Kalakh, at the Yusef Medical Center where he was getting treatment for a bullet wound to one of his feet that he had suffered in Syria. Al-Omar had crossed into Lebanon illegally on May 14, a relative told Human Rights Watch. He said:

The Lebanese police came for him specifically. I sent someone to see him at the Tripoli General Security yesterday [May 17], but they did not allow anyone to see him. The General Security called me this morning [May 18] and asked me to bring them `Ala's ID. When I asked why, they said because they wanted to deliver him to Syria.

Lebanon is party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) and is bound under Article 3 of that instrument not to return or expel any persons to states where they would be in danger of being tortured. Human Rights Watch has documented rampant torture by Syria's security services of detained males from towns that have seen large anti-government protests, such as Tal Kalakh.

Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, but is nevertheless bound by customary international law not to return refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened. The Refugee Convention also establishes the principle that refugees who come directly from a territory where their lives or freedom are threatened should not be penalized for their illegal entry or presence.

On May 19 at 7 a.m. the Lebanese army raided a house in the border village of Debabiya, near the Syrian border, an eyewitness who was just outside the house told Human Rights Watch. The witness said the army arrested Hael Hamed, a Syrian from the neighboring village of Halat. When asked by bystanders about the reason for the arrest, the army reportedly responded that it was because he had crossed the border illegally.

"Lebanon's authorities have international obligations towards these refugees. And these obligations cannot be trumped by bilateral security ties between Lebanon and Syria's security forces," Houry said.

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