Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

'Signs of torture' on bodies of Syrians in Lebanese army custody

According to Human Rights Watch, photographic evidence of the corpses and detainees’ testimonies revealed the men were tortured

A general view shows Syrian refugee camps dotted in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria. Reuters / Mohamed Azakir
A general view shows Syrian refugee camps dotted in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria. Reuters / Mohamed Azakir

An international human rights group said on Thursday there was evidence of torture on the bodies of Syrian refugees who died in the custody of the Lebanese army after mass arrests during raids on refugee camps late last month.

The military said that four of the nearly 400 Syrian refugees detained in the aftermath of a string of June 30 suicide attacks in the border town of Arsal died from “pre-existing conditions” and denied allegations of mistreatment.

Read more: Already desperate, Lebanon's Syrian refugees now face calls for expulsion

However, according to Human Rights Watch, photographic evidence of the corpses and detainees’ testimonies support allegations of torture. The rights group added that it had “credible” information a fifth detainee died in army custody.

Dr Homer Venters, director of programmes at Physicians for Human Rights, reviewed 28 photos of three of the deceased men, who were covered in bruises and cuts.

“The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture,” he said.

Although a precise cause of death cannot be determined through the photographs, “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs”, he added.

Medical reports — prepared at the request of Lebanon’s general prosecutor — for three of the men concluded that their bodies showed “no marks of violence”, and they had died from heart attacks and a stroke.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that refugees were placed in overcrowded cells, beaten and denied food and water.

One witness said the body of a fifth detainee — a man not named by the army as having died in their custody — “didn’t look human any more. His flesh was torn apart”.

“They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” said one former detainee. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face … until blood came out.”

The suicide attacks against Lebanese army patrols in Arsal on June 30 and the subsequent deaths of refugees in army custody have raised tensions significantly in Lebanon.

Increasingly viewing the country’s estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees a security threat, some of the country’s leading politicians are calling for their expulsion.

With anti-refugee rhetoric on the rise, activists called for a protest this week to show solidarity with Syrian refugees and demand answers about detainee deaths. The protest was cancelled amid fears of violence and Lebanon’s interior minister later banned all demonstrations in the country.

Read more: Lebanon bans all protests after calls for demonstrations by Syrian activists

Meanwhile, Lebanese president Michel Aoun spoke out against the persecution of refugees in the country on Wednesday, one day after a video surfaced of a group of Lebanese men beating a Syrian refugee in the street, accusing him of planning to protest against the army.

However, Mr Aoun has still pushed for refugees to return to their country as soon as possible and characterised accusations of army abuses as “malicious voices”.

Questioning and criticising the army has emerged as a red line in Lebanon. The administrator of a Facebook page that was promoting the refugee solidarity protest and a Lebanese journalist, who condemned the army’s behaviour, were detained this month.

An anticipated offensive on ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra positions near Arsal by the Lebanese army and the Shiite group Hizbollah has only added to tensions as the battle threatens to return conflict to the town, which was briefly captured by the two extremist groups in 2014.

The Lebanese government says the army will lead the operation, but Hizbollah forces are already in position and set for battle. No date has yet been set for the operation to start, but Syrian air force jets have stepped up air strikes on militant positions on the border in recent days.

The prospect of increased Hizbollah and army involvement in the area will likely make refugees uneasy. Many oppose Hizbollah and, after the allegations of abuse by the army, are now fearful of Lebanese government soldiers.

Updated: July 20, 2017 11:39 AM

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