(Beirut) – The Lebanese government forcibly returned Syrian national Mahmoud Abdul Rahman Hamdan to Syria on September 28, despite his fear of detention and torture by the Syrian authorities.
A former Syrian detainee told his relatives that he saw Hamdan in the custody of the Syrian Army in a base close to the Lebanese border. The forced return of anyone in danger of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment contravenes Lebanon’s obligations under the international Convention Against Torture (CAT).
“There is no justification for sending anyone into the hands of a government that is likely to torture them,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon’s efforts to promote security and stability must respect basic human rights. Deporting someone at risk of torture shows a total disregard for their rights and safety.”
Lebanese authorities should immediately investigate Hamdan’s fate and whereabouts, publicly report on their findings, and hold anyone guilty of breaching Lebanon’s international obligations accountable, Human Rights Watch said. The government should cease deportations to Syria and make a public commitment to end such deportations.
Hamdan’s relatives said he entered Lebanon through an unofficial border crossing about 18 months ago. They said he fled Syria because he was wanted by the Syrian authorities for allegedly participating in anti-government protests in Zabadani, a suburb of Damascus. Lebanese Military Intelligence arrested Hamdan on March 7, 2014, and he was subsequently convicted in a court and sentenced to six months in prison for “transporting weapons,” the relatives said.
Hamdan was transferred from Roumieh prison to a General Security detention center in Beirut on September 8, when his sentence ended. Instead of being released, his relatives said, he was transferred on the morning of September 28 to the General Security departure center at the Masnaa border crossing. At approximately 10:30 a.m., one of his relatives briefly visited him in detention at the border crossing, where, the relative said, Hamdan expressed fear that he would be tortured and killed if he was forcibly returned to Syria.
Hamdan’s relative said that when he asked the General Security officers there why Hamdan was being held at the border, they refused to respond. Officials told the relative to leave the departure center, and the relative waited outside, pleading with General Security officers there not to deport Hamdan. At about 4 p.m., he said, a General Security officer informed him that authorities had taken Hamden “around the back way” and returned him to Syria.
A few days later, relatives told Human Rights Watch, a former detainee called them alleging to have seen Hamdan in the custody of the Syrian Army’s 18th Brigade in Jdaydet Yabous in Syria, close to the Lebanese border. Hamdan’s family told Human Rights Watch that they have since inquired about his whereabouts with General Security in Lebanon but that officials there said that he was not in their custody and that they did not know his whereabouts.
Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the General Security director-general, on October 20, detailing the evidence that Hamdan had been deported and asking the Lebanese authorities to investigate Hamdan’s forced return to Syria and publicly report on its findings. General Security did not respond. Human Rights Watch called General Security on October 31 to follow up, and spoke with an official who said the agency had no comment on the case.
In response to social media reports alleging the deportation of Syrian nationals, General Security released a statement on September 29 in which they denied forcibly returning Syrian nationals to Syria but did not mention any individuals by name.
Syrians at risk of detention upon return in Syria are at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread torture and ill-treatment in Syrian detention facilities since anti-government protests began in March 2011. Family members and activists told Human Rights Watch that they and Hamdan feared his imminent torture and potential execution at the hands of the Syrian authorities.
Under article 3 of the Convention against Torture, which Lebanon ratified in 2000, Lebanon cannot send anyone – including a convicted criminal – to a country where the person would face a real risk of torture.
Lebanon is obligated not to forcibly return anyone who says they fear torture on their return unless the claim has been examined and rejected in a fair procedure. The Convention Against Torture requires that “competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.”
In the absence of refugee law and asylum procedures in Lebanon, the procedure should include unrestricted access to UNHCR, the UN agency with a mandate for determining refugee status, to any Syrian who expresses a fear of persecution if returned to Syria – even if the person is not registered with UNHCR at the time of detention.
Human Rights Watch previously documented the forcible return of four Syrian nationals to Syria on August 1, 2012 and about three dozen Palestinians to Syria on May 4, 2014. The Lebanese government should cease any further deportations of Syrians who may be at risk of torture or where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at real risk of a serious violation of human rights if returned to Syria.
“Lebanese authorities need to take concrete steps to show that they are committed to upholding their international obligations and that no one is returned to persecution or torture,” Houry said.