On 30 June 2017, the Lebanese army raided at least two refugee camps near the village of Arsal on the Syrian border. Five suicide bombers blew themselves up during the raid, wounding seven soldiers and killing a young Syrian girl. In response, the army arrested around 350 Syrian refugees, four of whom later died from chronic illnesses aggravated by the weather conditions, according to an army statement. Allegations of torture and mistreatment of refugees have since been made, crystallizing tensions in Lebanon, which is struggling to cope with an estimated one million Syrian refugees and the threat of Islamic State incursions across the border.
Such allegations are not new. In 2014, a United Nations report stated that ‘torture in Lebanon is a pervasive practice that is routinely used by the armed forces and law enforcement agencies’. In October 2016, the parliament even adopted a new law establishing a National Human Rights Institute that will include a committee to investigate the use of torture.
However, the recent deaths of the four Syrian detainees in army custody have raised fresh concerns about the army’s tactics and public criticism of it. According to a 10 July 2017 article in The Daily Star, future MP Amin Wehbi told Radio Orient that “the army has proven to be the only force that reassures both the Lebanese and the refugees”. In response to criticism of the army, he said it was only performing its duties and that the Lebanese judiciary and authorities had the last word on the guilt or innocence of those in custody. The same day, Prime Minister Saad Hariri declared that he fully supported the army and stressed that a military investigation into the deaths of the Syrians would be launched.
Yet it seems doubtful that such an investigation will be fair and independent. Fidaa Itani, a journalist for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, was detained and interrogated by the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrime Bureau after criticizing the army’s role in the deaths on Facebook. He was released after deleting the post.
Similarly, a dispute over legal jurisdictions emerged on 7 July 2017 between a judge of urgent matters and a military prosecuting judge, after a lawyer representing the families of the Syrians arrested by the army obtained medical samples from several bodies.
The lawyer representing the families, Diala Chehade, was executing a judiciary order from the judge of urgent matters and giving the samples, which had previously been dissected by a forensic doctor in Zahle Public Hospital morgue, to Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in the capital Beirut to be analyzed in order to establish how the victims died. Although she was harassed and threatened, Chehade managed to film several men dressed as civilians who introduced themselves as military intelligence officers and pressured her to hand over the samples.
“My secretary and I went to the hospital in Beirut accompanied by a medical officer from Zahle, but he decided to leave us after receiving multiple phone threats and orders to slow us down,” Chehade told Fanack. “I was trying to hand the samples formally to the hospital, so they would be preserved and analyzed, when a couple of guys in civilian clothes introduced themselves as military intelligence and told us they had an order to take the samples ‘no matter what’. But they didn’t have a judicial order. I eventually managed to reach the public prosecutor, Judge Samir Hammoud, and asked him to intervene. He ordered me to give the samples to the military intelligence men.”
She continued: “It is beyond any previous level in terms of human rights abuses. It can even be compared to the human rights status during the Lebanese civil war, where the power of an armed individual goes above any power.” However, she clarified that she is not accusing the army of any wrongdoing but the military intelligence “which is taking over military operations”.
Having worked on the testimonies of at least 200 Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian detainees, Chehade said serious questions should be raised about the way the military intelligence executes its power. “All the cases we documented have been subjected to physical and moral torture, whereas most of them have nothing to do with terrorism or the conflict in Syria. They are already in a very vulnerable situation in Lebanon, they have no rights and end up being forced to sign, always blindfolded, any confession given to them. It is proof that Article 47 of the Penal Code, which gives rights to detainees, is constantly violated and neglected. And now, even journalists and lawyers are being harassed and threatened for doing their job. It is like you can’t criticize the army’s methods, you can’t say anything anymore.”
However, the repression of free speech extends further than the army. On 16 July 2017, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk banned all protests in Lebanon, in response to a call from Syrian and Lebanese activists for a demonstration denouncing the mistreatment of Syrian refugees to be held two days later.
‘We hope to accelerate the investigation into the death of the four Syrian refugees,’ Machnouk tweeted. ‘For that reason, and after discussing [the matter] with the concerned security forces, we decided to decline any requests to hold a protest from anyone, in order to preserve security and civic peace.’
In response to the ban, and to the many threats received by the organizers, Socialist Forum issued a statement condemning ‘the rumours and accusations made against our comrades in the media and through social media or social networking platforms. We strongly condemn the leaking of the protest permit request document from the Beirut Municipality which mentions the names of three comrades and their telephone numbers. We also condemn the biased media coverage and the circulation of the names and photos (and Facebook pages) of our comrades by many of the local television channels. The circulation of this leaked document has put the three activists in serious and severe danger … Despite the fact that the Socialist Forum has organized numerous solidarity meetings with Syrian refugees over the years, this is the first time that the call for a sit-in has received so many open threats. We believe that this incitement is aimed at paving the way for an all-out war in Arsal, and imposing a deal with the Syrian regime within the framework of a settlement that would require the forcible transfer of Syrian refugees to so-called “safe-zones” within Syria.’
In a country that has long had a reputation for relative freedom of expression, the recent security crackdown and the heavy-handed response to public criticism of it suggests that basic human rights are under attack.