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Lebanese police force to abide by new rules

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces have opened a human rights unit led by officers who have the power to investigate and prosecute police misconduct.

BEIRUT // Despite a reputation for corruption and political favouritism, Lebanon's Internal Security Forces have opened a human rights unit led by officers who have the power to investigate and prosecute police misconduct. Although Lebanese and humanitarian groups have long criticised police for such misconduct, including demanding bribes and torturing criminal suspects to extract confessions, both are hailing the move as a small, but positive step.

Lebanon's deeply fractured political, ethnic and religious communities have long jockeyed for power by loading ministries with loyalists, a tradition that has isolated the ISF from many of the communities it is sworn to protect. The Human Rights Department, according to senior police officials involved in the programme, stems from Lebanon's adoption of the UN Charter on Human Rights, which mandates a series of reforms, including new rights for the accused, prohibitions against torturing suspects and investigative oversight of police activities.

The unit was created in March but only with the formation of a unity government in May has it developed the political authority and independence to begin carrying out its mandate, which is to reduce corruption and stop mistreatment of the public. "When people have limited rights in dealing with the police, it becomes a kind of occupation," said a senior law enforcement official with ties to the programme, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

"We used to torture some suspects - not too much - but there would be cases where a judge might suggest that a suspect will confess if we were to slap him. But now there is a new law, and there is no excuse for using torture in interrogation." A senior official from the internal affairs division, which is working closely with the new unit, agreed. "Now the people of Lebanon will have decent law enforcement after years of abuse," he said.

In a series of interviews with political figures, human rights workers and Lebanese, The National found a pattern of police abuse. "It's hard to get specific facts, testimony and statistics because no one wants to discuss this issue in the government and victims are often too terrified to give their names," said Nadim Houry, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring police abuse in Lebanon for years.

"But what is clear, is that Lebanon is a state that needs to finally start acting like a state based on whether people are in compliance with the laws. People, regardless of their wealth, status or political connections, need to be held accountable for their behaviour or nothing gets done or reformed," he said. One senior, pro-government political figure - who refused to speak on the record because of the sensitive nature of the subject - described the past two years of political power struggle between the western-backed government of Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, and the Hizbollah-led opposition as a major obstacle to reform efforts. The standoff ended after a series of bloody clashes in Beirut in May frightened the political leadership into compromise. "The police and army have spent two years terrified of angering one side or another," he said. "Arresting the wrong person - whether foreign or powerful - could spark a major crisis should one side begin targeting the army or police for abuse. So it has made commanders very cautious and reform nearly impossible." But according to police officials interviewed who requested anonymity because their political superiors did not give them permission to speak on the record, this began to change when the position of interior minister was filled by Ziad Baroud after the lengthy power struggle ended with unity government. "Since last month, we now have a minister following up on all complaints and he is very engaged in our work," a senior police commander said. "We have 40 open cases or investigations into complaints about the ISF and a new hotline for citizens to call that is staffed by 12 officers at all times." Mr Houry hailed the formation of the new human rights unit as a "positive step but still only a step, with a lot of work remaining to be done". Police officials admit they face problems changing a long-neglected, undertrained police force even if senior officials want to see improvement. For instance, the Lebanese social and political culture of influence still has a profound effect on the outcome of certain cases. Last year, for instance, Said, 20, a tutor to children in his neighbourhood said a dispute over money with a client's parents quickly fell into a series of accusations, threats and counter-threats that drew the involvement of the police. After forcing each side to drop the issue - which at one point drew a claim that Said had molested one of the children, a charged dropped by the parents almost immediately - police officials then demanded US$300 (Dh1,100) from both families for settling the issue. Said and his father refused to pay, arguing that it is illegal for police to charge for their services. Three months later, police officers arrived at Said's home, arrested and jailed him. In court, he discovered that the other family had changed their mind about the charge and paid the police officers. The police then demanded $10,000 for the charges to be dropped with the understanding they would split the money with the "victim's" family. Said ended up spending 103 days in Lebanon's central prison before being exonerated by a judge. "I was innocent, everybody knew it," he said. "This incident effected my life and made me hate this country and now I'm waiting to finish my university so I can run away from this corrupt country and never come back." mprothero@thenational.ae