Is the Lebanese army guilty of torturing Syrian refugees?

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Raison d’État, the two words on everyone’s lips, but never uttered, is the explanation for the silence surrounding the deaths of at least four Syrians following their detention by the Lebanese army on 30 June.

On that day, a brigade descended on two refugee camps close to the village of Arsal, on the border with Syria, where there are more Syrian refugees than Lebanese inhabitants. A routine patrol was being conducted of this deceptively calm area, not far from where the Fateh-al-Sham fighters (formerly called al-Nosra Front, which used to be a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria) have been based since 2014.

Suddenly, a group of individuals emerged from tarpaulin and canvas tents with explosives, which they detonated close to the soldiers, injuring several of them.

The reaction was immediate: around 350 Syrian refugees were detained by the army. Several of them would never come back.

On 3 July, the army officially acknowledged that four of the detainees had died, issuing its own diagnosis of the cause of death: the four men were suffering from “chronic health problems that had worsened due to the weather conditions”. In other words, “move along, there’s nothing to see here”.

Although loud and clear, the order went totally unheeded on social media.

Dozens of photos circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp of the four corpses that had been returned to Arsal for burial without further ado. A doctor with expertise in documenting torture, who reviewed them for Human Rights Watch (HRW), confirmed that the bodies bore signs of torture.

Diala Chehade, the lawyer representing the victims’ families, believes the army had initially tried to hush up the incident: “The Rahma Hospital in Arsal stated that it had received over a dozen bodies following the attack on 30 June. Why did the army only admit to the deaths of those four? Perhaps because their families refused to collect their bodies without an accompanying medical report, which they had been promised originally. They were not refugees with no idea of their rights as, I think, the military intelligence service was hoping. That’s when they had to officially declare them dead, rather than having them buried without a word,” she tells Equal Times from her office in Beirut.

The gap was so wide between the sanitised official version and the reality shown in the photos of lacerated wrists, open wounds and bruises covering the bodies of the four deceased men – Mustafa Abd el-Karim Abssi, Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, Khaled Husseini el-Mleis and Othman Merhi el-Mleis – that a torrent of legitimate questions followed.

In several countries around the world, demonstrations were held in solidarity with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A network of Syrians activists even staged a hunger strike to press for justice.

HRW, along with several other human rights organisations, called on the Lebanese authorities to “conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention,” as well as to respond to allegations regarding the torture of a fifth Syrian, Toufic al-Ghawi, who also died in detention.

“The army is above suspicion”

If there is one institution reputed to be virtuous and worthy of respect in Lebanon it is the army. To raise doubts about it is to challenge the only source of unity in a country prone to unyielding religious and political division.

Worse still, the suspicions of torture were raised just as Lebanon’s army was preparing for the large-scale military operation that is currently taking place, aimed at ridding Arsal of Fateh al-Sham fighters before taking back control the neighbouring region, Ras Baalbek, held by ISIS.

It was not the right time to be questioning the army’s integrity, warned Hisham Jaber, an analyst and retired general. “The army needs to be firm. If just one per cent of Syrian refugees in Arsal are jihadis, that’s already 800 people ready to take it on. Our soldiers are highly advanced in the fight against terrorism; they receive training in respect for human rights,” he tells Equal Times.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, responded to the torture allegations by promptly agreeing to open a “clear and transparent” inquiry, and rejected any attempts to “create tension between the population and the army that works night and day to protect Lebanon from all terrorist threats”.

“The army is above suspicion. Those trying to fish in troubled waters should find something better to do,” he stated.

The inquiry has been placed in the hands of the military court, “where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors”, underlines HRW, which has already documented the use of torture during investigations led by this very same court.

Chehade has first-hand experience of how problematic it is to “query” the work of the military court.

Officially assigned by a judge in chambers to be able to analyse the samples taken from the bodies, the hospital where she was headed to take them was surrounded by the military intelligence service, who seized the samples “without having received approval from the military court”, she explains.

After being refused access to the autopsy report, she was finally allowed to consult it, but was not allowed to obtain a copy or even to take notes. On the basis of what she read, she explains: “The report was very skilfully worded to avoid any terminology that might point to torture, at the same time as confirming marks of violence on the four bodies: burns on their backs, signs of violence to the upper body, wrists lacerated by handcuffs. In addition, whilst one of the victims was suffering from bronchitis and the other had perhaps taken ecstasy prior to the incident, the latter was in perfect health, which contradicts the version that their deaths were linked to chronic health conditions,” she points out. “By refusing to give us access to the reports, which we have a right to as the victims’ representatives, the military prosecutor was able to distort the facts presented to the media.”

On 24 July, the local press relayed the official version issued by the military court, claiming that the four Syrians had not died as a result of violence.

But this version does not erase the images of the disfigured bodies.

Abdel Halim, a Syrian refugee in Arsal and an old friend of Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, is far from convinced. “Anas was one of the only anaesthetists in our hometown of al-Qasr when Hezbollah attacked in 2013. He treated hundreds of civilians and, after becoming a refugee in Arsal, he continued his work at the local health centre. Anas was a nurse, he wasn’t ill,” he says on WhatsApp.

Chehade has no intention of giving up, and is already preparing the next move:

“We are going to continue to demand access to the medical reports, which we need to be able to file a complaint and, ultimately, to obtain compensation for the victims’ families. We are also going to file a complaint for falsification against the doctor commissioned by the military court, who claimed there were no marks of violence. We owe it to the parents of those who died, to bring them some consolation.”

This story has been translated from French.