(Beirut) – Lebanon’s authorities should ensure a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation into alleged torture, ill-treatment, and a death in custody by the Lebanese army following clashes with armed supporters of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir in June 2013 in the southern city of Saida.
In the course of its investigation in Saida, Human Rights Watch interviewed victims who gave credible accounts of being tortured or ill-treated in custody and families who had no adequate information about their detained relatives. Human Rights Watch also got troubling information about the death in military custody of Nader Bayoumi, a 36-year-old car mechanic.
The army announced on July 6 that it will investigate a video available on social media showing Lebanese soldiers beating a man in their custody and take disciplinary and penal measures against personnel who commit “any security or ethical violation.” Two days later, media reported that an investigative military judge issued arrest warrants against five members of military intelligence for the death of Bayoumi. Members of Parliament’s National Defense Committee convening on July 18 should discuss the Saida clashes and call for more transparency from the army on the state of the investigations into army abuses.
“The army’s announced investigations are encouraging but the real test will be whether these investigations result in appropriate prosecutions,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only is justice for the victims at stake, but also the army’s reputation.”
On July 5, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with its findings and follow-up questions to the army command and minister of defense. They have not yet responded.
Heavy clashes broke out in Saida, southern Lebanon’s biggest city, on June 23, after armed followers of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, the Imam of Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in the `Abra neighborhood of Saida, allegedly fired on an army checkpoint, and the army counterattacked. The clashes, which lasted for two days, killed 18 soldiers and 28 of Assir’s supporters, according to media reports. Media reports indicate that the army arrested up to 180 people in the wake of the clashes, releasing many in the subsequent days, and that a military judge has charged 27 people in relation to attacks on the military.
Lebanon’s security forces have a responsibility and duty to maintain public order and to pursue and bring to justice those responsible for violence, Human Rights Watch said. However, such law enforcement functions need to comply with Lebanon’s national law and international obligations.
Seven released detainees, two of them children, told Human Rights Watch that army personnel beat them and, in two cases, tortured them by burning them with cigarettes. They were abused while held at checkpoints as well as during initial interrogations at military bases in Saida. At the time of the interviews, all of the victims still bore visible marks from the beatings.
Available evidence indicates that beatings in custody led to Bayoumi’s death. Bayoumi’s family told Human Rights Watch that on June 23, he went to the `Abra neighborhood in Saida where the clashes broke out later that day, and that he did not return. On June 26, a contact in the army informed the family that they could collect Bayoumi’s body in the military hospital in Beirut.
Relatives said his body was heavily bruised. This was confirmed, the family said, by a medical expert, who stated that Bayoumi had died of a heart attack, but that his body was severely bruised. No postmortem was conducted, however, and the family has not received a death certificate or any other explanation regarding Bayoumi’s death.
All seven former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, including the two children, said that the military did not allow them to contact their families throughout their detention, and their relatives confirmed that they had no official information from the military during the entire period of detention, which lasted up to six days.
Lebanon has failed in the past to investigate cases involving military abuses. No proper investigations were opened into serious allegations of military abuses against detainees in connection with the fighting between the Lebanese army and the armed Fatah al-Islam group in 2007 in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Nor was there a judicial investigation in October 2012 after army and intelligence officials rounded up and beat at least 72 male migrant workers, mostly Syrians, in the Beirut neighborhood of Geitawi, allegedly because they had received reports of migrants “harassing women.”
“A serious and transparent accountability process will strengthen the rule of law and the military institution,” Houry said. “Otherwise, the cycle of abuse and impunity will continue.”
Torture and Ill-Treatment
Following the clashes in Saida in June, Human Rights Watch interviewed five men and two boys who were detained by the Lebanese army for periods of time ranging from several hours to six days, and later released.
The former detainees said that army personnel detained them either at checkpoints in Saida, in the Ta`mir neighborhood on the outskirts of Saida, or near their homes. The detainees were taken to a military base in Mieh-Mieh, a military base in Rmeileh, and the Mohammad Zgheib military base in Saida, and either released following initial interrogation or held overnight and then transferred to the Defense Ministry detention facility in Yarze.
All of the former detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said that army personnel kicked and beat them with fists and, in some cases, sticks, cables, and batons during initial interrogations at checkpoints. At the time of interviews, all still bore visible marks consistent with the beatings.
In two cases, large areas of their arms, legs, buttocks, and backs were covered in bruises, and they had marks from the beatings on their heads and faces. Two of the detainees showed Human Rights Watch marks on their bodies that they said were from soldiers burning them with cigarettes. Some said that they had also witnessed the beatings and torture of other detainees.
“Ahmad,” who was detained as he was returning to his home in the Ta`mir neighborhood of Saida on June 25, told Human Rights Watch that the army and members of the Resistance Brigades (Saraya al-Muqawame), a Hezbollah-affiliated group, severely beat him at a nearby checkpoint:
They handcuffed me and took me to the army checkpoint. They were cursing and insulting me, asking me whether I go to Assir’s mosque. At the checkpoint, two men beat me for about one and a half hours, using some kind of rubber whips or batons.
Ahmad was released later the same day. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the presence of members of the Resistance Brigades alongside the army.
At the time of the interview, five days after he was detained, both of Ahmad’s upper arms were covered in large, dark-colored bruises; he also had bruises on his thighs.
“Mahmoud,” who was held by the army on the same day at a checkpoint at the entrance to Ta`mir neighborhood, told Human Rights Watch:
The army stopped my car, forced me to get out, handcuffed me with plastic strips and blindfolded me. Then they started beating me with what felt like a heavy shovel. They rubbed dirt into my face and told me that I ought to die because I used to pray in [Assir’s] mosque. They insulted me and destroyed my car.
Mahmoud said that the army later transferred him to various military bases, and eventually released him without charge on June 29. Five days after the alleged beating at the checkpoint, when Human Rights Watch spoke to Mahmoud, his back, arms, and buttocks were still covered with severe bruises. There were also bruises on his head and face.
“Ihab” told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers took him off his company’s bus on the morning of June 26. He said soldiers “got angry” that he was looking at his cell phone when the bus was stopped at a military checkpoint in Alman, an area on the outskirts of Saida. The soldiers, Ihab said, took him to a small booth near a checkpoint where they interrogated and beat him and other detainees who were already there:
There were three people already there, apparently from Syria judging by their accents. Inside the booth an officer and a man in civilian clothes started beating me. I fell to the ground. They hit me with their fists and kicked me, accusing me of being one of Assir’s followers. Every time I said that I was not, they hit me again. They also beat the three Syrians and a Palestinian who arrived later.
He also said that the army beat him in the car while they were transporting him to another military base.
Two 15-year-old boys independently told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers beat them during interrogations and held them in detention together with adult detainees. Both said that the military personnel were aware of their age because they had their ID cards with them.
Four former detainees, including the two men with the most serious injuries, independently told Human Rights Watch that they were subjected to severe, prolonged beatings at a specific checkpoint in the Ta`mir neighborhood run by a military officer they named. Human Rights Watch provided the name of the officer in its letter to the Lebanese army command and Defense Ministry so that the allegations can be investigated.
Some former detainees said that the beatings continued during interrogations at Mieh-Mieh and Mohammad Zgheib military bases, although, in most cases, not as severely. Several detainees who were held overnight at the Mohammad Zgheib military base described detention conditions amounting to ill-treatment. They said they were held with about 20 other detainees in a small cell, measuring approximately 2-by-3 meters, handcuffed and blindfolded, unable to sleep due to the lack of space, and deprived of adequate food and water.
“Yasser,” a young car mechanic from the `Abra area in Saida, said the army detained him on the day of the clashes near his house and later transferred him to Mohammad Zgheib military base, along with many other detainees from the neighborhood:
They put us in a 2-by-3 meter cell – several dozen people. I was handcuffed and blindfolded but could get a sense of how crowded the cell was as I was getting to the entrance when called for an interrogation. For 24 hours, there was no food or water. During interrogation there, two soldiers cursed and humiliated me and my family, and beat me all the time with cables – on my chest, legs, sides and arms.
The former detainees did not report any physical abuse or inadequate detention conditions in the Defense Ministry facility, although some said they were forced to sign or fingerprint statements without having a chance to read them.
All of these detainees were released, apparently without charge.
Alleged Death in Custody: Nader Bayoumi
The family of Bayoumi, a 36-year-old car mechanic, told Human Rights Watch that on June 23, the day of the clashes, he went to the `Abra area in Saida to assist one of his customers with a car repair. At around 2 p.m. the following day, his family received a text message in which he wrote that because of the clashes he could not get out of `Abra and was staying in the building on the same street as the Bilal Bin Rabah mosque.
That was the last time Bayoumi’s family heard from him, they said. Later that day, his brother tried to call his cell phone, but an unknown man answered and hung up when Bayoumi’s brother introduced himself. Bayoumi’s customer later told the family that she last saw Bayoumi in the afternoon as he left in his car toward a mobile checkpoint at the Lia roundabout.
Bayoumi’s relative told Human Rights Watch:
When he did not return home, we started calling his phone. At some point, an unknown man picked up, but when we said we were Nader’s family, he hung up. We started hearing about people being arrested, and started calling the hospitals, but he was not there. We went to the military police in Saida, but they said his name was not on the lists of injured or missing. Then we started using personal contacts.
On the night of June 26, the family said, one of their contacts in military intelligence, whom they had contacted by phone, said that they could pick up Bayoumi’s body at the military hospital in Beirut.
The following day, Bayoumi’s father went to collect his body. Other relatives said that the officer who handed the body over to the father in a closed coffin initially refused to open it. The officer opened it when the father insisted, but refused to provide any further information, saying only that Bayoumi had died of a heart attack. When the family spoke to Human Rights Watch on July 1, they said they had yet to receive a death certificate or any other explanation regarding Bayoumi’s death.
Relatives who saw the body said it was heavily bruised. The family said that an independent medical expert confirmed that Bayoumi had died of a heart attack, but that his body had severe bruises. The doctor did not elaborate on how the bruises may have been sustained. No postmortem was conducted, the family said, and at the time when Human Rights Watch interviewed them on July 1, the family had not yet received a death certificate or any other explanation regarding Bayoumi’s death.
According to media reports, on July 8, the army charged five army personnel with violating military orders, abuse of power and accidentally killing a person, in relation to Bayoumi’s death.
Lack of Information about the Detainees’ Fate, Whereabouts
The army did not inform the families of the seven detainees, including the two children, about their fate and whereabouts while they were in detention, they told Human Rights Watch.
Their relatives, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, confirmed that during the entire period of detention, up to six days, they had no official information from the military. Some said they managed to get unofficial confirmation once their relatives were transferred to the Defense Ministry facility, through personal contacts in the military or local politicians.
Mahmoud’s wife told Human Rights Watch:
Tuesday [June 25] afternoon, we saw him being detained and beaten. But when we went to the checkpoint, the soldiers shouted at us and told us to go home, saying that he had “caused problems.” We started calling people whom we thought could help to get him released. But there was no official information. We did not know where he was and why until he was released on Saturday [June 29].
Yasser, one of the former detainees, told Human Rights Watch on July 1 that the family still had no information about his brother, who had been missing since the clashes on June 23. The family believes he is still in detention because the military intelligence asked one of the family members to bring the missing man’s cell phone to their local branch. Yasser also said that after his release, he informed several families in his neighborhood about seeing their relatives in detention, and it was the first time the families had received any information about the detainees.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that some of those detained may be victims of enforced disappearance, increasing the risk to their lives and physical safety. Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities deprive a person of their liberty but refuse to acknowledge doing so or do not provide information about the person’s whereabouts or fate.