(Beirut) – The Lebanese authorities should investigate and prosecute those responsible for the reported kidnapping of dozens of Syrian nationals and a Turkish man on August 15, 2012. Members of the al-Meqdad extended family in Lebanon claimed responsibility for some of the kidnappings on national TV, calling them a retaliation for the kidnapping of one of their relatives, Hassan al-Meqdad, a Lebanese national, in Syria on August 13 by a group that claimed to be part of the opposition Free Syrian Army.
Lebanese authorities have made no arrests concerning the recent kidnappings or other retaliatory attacks by private citizens against Syrian citizens in Lebanon during the last several months. Human Rights Watch interviewed Free Syrian Army representatives and a representative of a group involved in negotiating the release of the kidnapped in Lebanon, as well as people involved in similar tit-for-tat kidnappings and other types of abuse earlier this summer.
“A crime can never justify another crime, as much as we can understand the anguish of Lebanese families whose loved ones have been kidnapped,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanese authorities need to enforce the law and end impunity for kidnappings and other violent acts carried out against Syrian citizens in the name of reprisal.”
This is not the first instance of apparent retaliation against Syrians in Lebanon for crimes committed against Lebanese in Syria since the beginning of anti-government protests in that country in 2011. Following the reported kidnapping by an armed opposition group in Azaz, Aleppo of 11 Lebanese Shiites on a pilgrimage bus in Aleppo province in Syria on May 22, a number of Syrians were assaulted in various parts of Lebanon. Media reports indicate that, as a result of this violence, a large number of Syrians fled Lebanon. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, the Lebanese authorities have not conducted investigations, arrested, or prosecuted anyone for these crimes.
The parties in Lebanon and Syria who have been involved in these kidnappings should release everyone they are holding, Human Rights Watch said.
In a video posted on YouTube on August 13, a group that said it was part of the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of al-Meqdad in Damascus, Syria. In an interview with Human Rights Watch on August 16, an individual identifying himself as a Free Syrian Army political consultant, Bassam al-Dada, confirmed that al-Meqdad was in the custody of the group. However, Fahd al-Masri, a press officer for the group, denied to the news media that it was responsible for the kidnapping. In an interview with Human Rights Watch on August 17, al-Masri said that the Free Syrian Army “denies any involvement in the kidnapping of Hassan al-Meqad. We refuse any sort of kidnapping because it is outside of the law.”
The group responsible for the kidnapping of al-Meqdad should immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said, and the Free Syrian Army should reiterate its opposition to kidnappings and any other unlawful detention under any circumstances by any forces under its command.
Saying they were acting in retaliation for al-Meqdad’s kidnapping, members of the extended al-Meqdad family, identifying themselves as the “armed wing” of the clan, claimed responsibility for kidnapping Syrian nationals as well a Turkish man, Aydin Tufan, on August 15. Maher al-Meqdad, the spokesman for the al-Meqdad family, a powerful clan from Baalbak, Lebanon, told reporters that the Syrians they were holding are Free Syrian Army members and that the al-Meqdads had freed Syrians they seized who were not members of the group.
According to the National News Agency, on August 15, Hatem al-Meqdad, Hassan al-Meqdad’s brother, said that his family kidnapped 26 Syrians and that four were released. The National News Agency also reported Maher al-Meqdad’s announcement on August 16 that the al-Meqdad family had stopped its kidnapping operations as they had a “sufficient number of Free Syrian Army supporters” and a Turkish citizen in their custody.
In a televised statement on August 16, a representative of he Mukhtar al-Thaqafi group, a previously unknown group apparently formed in response to the kidnapping of 11 Shiite Lebanese in Syria on May 22, said that they have also conducted retaliatory kidnappings and that they would kidnap any Syrian supporting the opposition or the Free Syrian Army but that they were freeing people not supporting or linked to the group. Interviews with some of their captives, while still in custody, have aired on local news stations. Ali Aqil Khalil, a representative of the International Organization for Human Rights, a local group who is involved in the hostage negotiations with the al-Meqdad family, spoke with Human Rights Watch on August 16. He said that that one of the detained Syrians had been released the day before, but that as far as he knew approximately 50 people remained in custody in Lebanon as a result of the al-Meqdad kidnapping in Syria.
Al-Dada, the self-described political consultant to the Free Syrian Army, told Human Rights Watch on August 16 that to his knowledge more than 30 Syrians had been kidnapped in Lebanon in retaliation for Hassan al-Meqdad, and that none of them were members of his group.
Human Rights Watch has not confirmed how many of the kidnapped remain in custody.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has said that the government is working to negotiate the release of the Lebanese hostages held in Syria, including Hassan al-Meqdad. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said on August 16 that the cabinet had agreed on the need to pursue arrests against those responsible for the kidnappings in Lebanon, the National News Agency reported. But the Lebanese authorities have not announced any concrete measures against the kidnappers.
“The Lebanese authorities need to act to stop the kidnappings of Syrians and attacks against them in Lebanon by holding those responsible to account regardless of their motives,” Houry said. “If the authorities don’t uphold the law, rogue actors will continue to commit crimes in the name of retaliation.”
Kidnapping and Counter-Kidnapping in Northern Lebanon in June
The kidnappings claimed by the al-Meqdad family are not the first kidnappings claimed in Lebanon as a form of retaliation. In June, relatives of Suleiman Mohammed al-Ahmad, a Lebanese man kidnapped on June 9 in Hisah, Lebanon and transferred illegally into Syrian custody, kidnapped Shiite and Alawite Lebanese and Syrian men in Lebanon.
Detailing the circumstances of al-Ahmad’s kidnapping, Ahmed Nhaile, a Lebanese national who was with al-Ahmad, told Human Rights Watch in an interview on July 10:
I was going with Suleiman [al-Ahmad] to Sahel. He had business with an Alawite there… We went in my taxi and I was driving. When we arrived at the meeting place, Syrian Military Intelligence cars blocked the street from the front and from the back...The two cars surrounded us and armed men approached our car…They grabbed Suleiman and me from the taxi...The armed men were wearing civilian clothes and carrying Kalashnikovs... Two of the kidnappers grabbed Suleiman and put him in the Mercedes in front of us…[and] One of them hit me with the butt of his gun [until] I fell on the ground and lost consciousness…
After regaining consciousness, Nhaile sought to report al-Ahmad’s kidnapping but, he told Human Rights Watch, instead of investigating his claim, Lebanese Military Intelligence beat him and accused him of weapons smuggling:
One of the officers took down my statement. I thought that was it, but then they told me I should go to Tripoli to give them my statement a second time…The officers drove me to the Military Intelligence branch in Tripoli…They were speaking to me in a respectful way and everything was okay until the next morning when they handcuffed me and accused me of selling weapons. They started beating me with wooden batons on my legs, chest, and back. They also used the Balango torture method [hanging the victim by the wrists tied behind the back]. One of them hit me with his fist on my head [where I was] wound[ed]. It started bleeding and they didn’t let a doctor check it.
He also told Human Rights Watch that he was accused of orchestrating al-Ahmad’s attack. After being held in the Military Intelligence facility in Tripoli for three days, Nhaile was transferred to the police station in that city for one night and then to the military court in Beirut. The following day he was released. “All the time I was in Tripoli I didn’t talk with my family,” he said. “In the meantime, my brother was [contacting Military Intelligence and] insisting that I should be released …My brother also threatened to block the roads [if I wasn’t released].”
In an interview with Human Rights Watch on July 10, al-Ahmad’s cousin explained how he decided to carry out a kidnapping in the hope of securing his cousin’s release. The cousin asked to remain anonymous, citing fears for his security. He said:
Nhaile called me to say that Suleiman was kidnapped and that he was going to Military Intelligence to report what happened…We went to the sheikh here in Wadi Khaled, who called people he knows in Sahel…The calls with people in Sahel were useless. We called the Lebanese Army hoping they could help us. As soon as I explained the situation to one of the army officials, he told me that Suleiman was involved in buying and selling arms. I told him that if he really is involved in weapons smuggling then why is he kidnapped and not arrested? For 24 hours we didn’t know where he was and neither did the Lebanese Army. We couldn’t understand how the Lebanese Army didn’t know where he was. We decided to take things into our own hands.
The first person to be kidnapped by the relatives of al-Ahmad was apparently a Lebanese man from Ayn Al-Zayt. Al-Ahmad’s cousin said that the man, whom he and al-Ahmad knew, “volunteered” to be kidnapped so as to help secure al-Ahmad’s release. Two days later, after learning that al-Ahmad was in Syria, his cousin decided to carry out additional kidnappings. He said he kidnapped a man and his 10-year-old son from the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood in Tripoli along with two other Shiites.
He said he and others working with him also “mistakenly” kidnapped one Syrian Christian and one Morshedi Alawite but released them 10 minutes later after finding out their religious affiliations. He contended that the people he had held were not really kidnapped, “but just held with us.” He said: “They couldn’t leave, but we treated them as guests. The Ayn al Zayt man was released the same day the others were kidnapped…When they released Suleiman we released the hostages.”
These kidnappings were widely reported on and documented by local Lebanese media. A local Wadi Khaled resident, where Al-Ahmad lives, confirmed the reported kidnappings to Human Rights Watch.
Al-Ahmad was released on June 12. In an interview with Human Rights Watch on July 10, he said that his captors transported him by car from Hisah across the border to Tal Kalakh, Syria, where he was beaten by Syrian soldiers and then detained and beaten by Air Force Intelligence officers in Homs. Al-Ahmad said that he was taken to Damascus, then returned to Lebanon.
Attacks Against Syrian Workers Following the Kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiites in Syria
Following the kidnapping on May 22 of11 Lebanese Shiites from a pilgrimage bus that had been moving through Aleppo’s countryside, a number of Syrian workers in Lebanon were assaulted by people in Lebanon, though they have not been charged or prosecuted. An armed opposition group based in Azaz, in Aleppo province claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. According to media reports quoting “Abu Ibrahim,” described as one of the kidnappers, four of the eleven kidnapped men were killed in an air strike in the northern city of Azaz, where they were being held, on August 15. Human Rights Watch has not confirmed the deaths.
Media reports indicate that some Syrians have fled Lebanon because they had been threatened, intimidated, and beaten by private citizens. Human Rights Watch interviewed two Syrian nationals who were beaten in June by unidentified men on the street in Beirut. Both indicated that they did not file complaints because they did not trust the Lebanese police.