x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lebanese border security body 'intimidated top lawyer'

Interior ministry forced to step in as human rights groups say recent actions by General Security are escalating conflict with advocates of Iraqi refugees.

BEIRUT // A high-profile group of international human rights organisations are accusing the Lebanese government of harassing a prominent civil society lawyer after officials seized his passport last week, forcing the intervention of the interior ministry to get the documents returned.

Nizar Saghieh, a dual Lebanese-British national, was part of a 16-member delegation that applied for Bosnian entry visas on March 2, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch and signed by several other groups. The passports were delivered to Lebanon's General Security office, responsible for border control and immigration issues in Lebanon, so the paperwork could be sent to Bosnia's embassy in Amman, Jordan. Bosnia does not maintain an embassy in Beirut.

But Mr Saghieh, who has been a forceful critic of Lebanon's detentions of refugees and migrant workers, did not receive his British passport when the documents were returned to the rest of the group two days later. General Security officials, who are often the target of Mr Saghieh's criticism, instead said they were withholding his passport until he came in person to discuss the matter with security officials.

"We are concerned that General Security singled out Nizar Saghieh for harassment because of his role in defending Iraqi refugees," the organisations said. "The government should investigate the reasons for General Security's behaviour and ensure that no human rights activist is harassed for his or her activities." Only when a coalition of civil society groups and activists complained to the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, was the passport returned after the minister himself called General Security officials to demand an explanation.

Because of his role in fighting General Security's policies towards detaining refugees, migrant workers and illegal aliens, which many groups have described as arbitrary and cruel, Lebanon's human right's community saw the move as an attempt to intimidate Mr Saghieh. "Saghieh's activism has caused him trouble with General Security in the past," according to a statement released by HRW and signed by a number of other aligned groups. "In 2003, General Security issued an order prohibiting him from entering General Security buildings or conducting any 'formality' in it."

As the order remains in place, General Security officials were unable to explain how Mr Saghieh was supposed to personally pick up the travel documents from a building he was banned from entering. Officials with General Security, the Internal Security Forces and the interior ministry refused to comment on the incident despite repeated attempts by The National to contact them. One prominent civil society activist, who asked not to be named for fear of drawing the same level of attention as Mr Saghieh, said the incident reflected a current standoff between General Security and activists over the arbitrary detainment and mistreatment of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.

"The conditions that Iraqis and migrant workers or other undocumented people are held in [by General Security] is completely unacceptable and they know it," the activist said. "We've been winning some cases so this is seen as the security forces striking back against what they call interference." In particular, the group's suspect that Mr Saghieh was targeted because he had filed four lawsuits on behalf of Iraqi refugees, who despite having served their sentences remained jailed without explanation. In all four cases, Mr Saghieh convinced judges to release the detained Iraqis, but thus far only one has been released. The other three remain incarcerated in violation of the court's order.

Lebanese law states that anyone convicted of illegally entering Lebanon should be released upon completion of the sentence and given 15 days to leave the country by their own means. But detainees are often kept incarcerated for months after the end of their jail term on orders of the General Security, according to court documents examined by The National. The dispute comes at a time when General Security is already involved in a controversy after statements made by its commander in regard to tracking visitors to Lebanon with names with Jewish links.

Major Gene Wafiq Jizzini, the director of General Security, said last week that the public security agency checks names against various lists of Jewish family names, in order to prevent Israeli infiltration of Lebanon. "When someone comes to Lebanon on a foreign passport and the name of his family indicates that he is of Jewish origin, the border centre sends the information to the central information office at the General Directorate of the Public Security," he said. "Afterward, the directorate observes this person who would have already registered his address in Lebanon. Both the visiting person and the one who receives him at the airport are observed."

Besides his role in the Lebanese government, Gen Jizzini is considered to be at least very close to Hizbollah, if not a formal member, and the comments were roundly criticised by members of the international community for appearing anti-Semitic. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae