A War Mentality

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Two Australian citizens are among detainees allegedly tortured following recent fighting between Islamic militants and Lebanon’s military at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.

More than 200 alleged Fatah al-Islam members and associates were detained during the conflict including three Australians who are in custody at Beirut’s Roumieh prison. Omar El Hadba, Ibrahim Sabouh and Hussein El Omar are being charged with terrorism related offences.

A spokesperson said the embassy had approached the office of the Lebanese Prime Minister as well as prison authorities about allegations two of the men had been tortured. The spokesperson said Lebanese authorities had been cooperative and had sent a military doctor to assess the men’s condition. It is understood the detainees were also visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC said it could not make any comment on the detainees’ condition, but the embassy spokesperson said Australian officials who last saw them on 21 September reported they were in ‘a good condition.’

Two of the Australians were detained at Tripoli near Nahr al-Bared in late June, and the third at Beirut airport in July. All three are in their late thirties.

They are being held on preliminary charges related to terrorism, and may face a long delay before they appear before the military tribunal that will hear their cases. The Lebanese military said recently that no detainee linked to Fatah al-Islam will be released before April 2008.

The embassy spokesperson said it was ‘monitoring the situation but not interfering’ in another country’s legal process.

The 106-day battle at Nahr al-Bared, which ended last month, began when the Fatah al-Islam militants attacked Lebanese soldiers from within the heavily-populated camp. Over 200 alleged Fatah al-Islam militants were killed when the soldiers subsequently besieged the camp.

One hundred and fifty-eight Lebanese soldiers and an unknown number of Palestinians also died in the subsequent siege, which saw the heaviest internal fighting in Lebanon since the end of its 15-year Civil War in 1990. The conflict led to the destruction of much of the camp and the displacement of more than 40,000 Palestinian refugees.

In addition to Lebanese, Palestinians and Australians, there are reportedly nationals from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Russia and Argentina accused of belonging to or supporting Fatah al-Islam. There have been numerous allegations that some of these detainees have been beaten or tortured.

Lebanese military sources admit all detainees were ‘interrogated’ after their arrest and denied legal representation while in military custody. But they reject allegations of mistreatment saying force was used only when necessary.

However, representatives of Al-Karama for Human Rights, a Geneva-based organisation which has documented the cases of 176 detainees, recently approached prison authorities with evidence of mistreatment, sparking an investigation by the Lebanese Attorney General.

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is also monitoring NGOs that are independently investigating the treatment of detainees. A video obtained from human rights workers shows what appears to be two detainees lying bloodied and sobbing in agony. They are wearing only underpants.

Surrounding them are what appears to be Lebanese soldiers, their faces hidden from view. ‘Roll over!’ they shout in Arabic, as one of the detainees writhes in the dirt and tries in vain to shield himself from their kicks. The other man is barely moving.

Human Rights Watch said many Palestinian detainees had been physically abused at the Kobbeh military base near Tripoli, at checkpoints surrounding Nahr al-Bared and in private houses near the camp.

It also said some Palestinian refugees fleeing the fighting had been arrested arbitrarily.

Mahmoud al-Hanafi, manager of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said a large proportion of those detained and classified as Fatah al-Islam members or associates have tenuous, if any, links to the group.

In addition to torture allegations, there have been claims some injured detainees have been denied adequate medical treatment. Human rights NGOs are investigating reports a 59-year-old mentally ill Palestinian detainee from Nahr al-Bared died after he was removed from hospital immediately after being operated on for injuries received during the fighting.

Omar Nashabe, editor of the legal page at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, said Lebanese military authorities were furious at the loss of their comrades at Nahr al-Bared in particular, the beheading of 10 soldiers by Fatah al-Islam militants.

‘Since Fatah al-Islam was considered such a notorious terrorist group there was popular support for torturing those people that belong to this group, and therefore this belief also spread within the ranks of the army,’ he said.

A spokesperson for Al-Karama for Human Rights pointed to the culture of violence and impunity that characterised the Civil War, saying ‘the mentality of torture continues.’

Nashabe agreed there was a mood in Lebanon that torture was acceptable if detainees were guilty. ‘However, it is totally unacceptable and against Lebanese laws and against proper military behaviour in the Lebanese Army to actually engage in such acts.’

Torture aside, many in Lebanon’s military have little sympathy for the plight of those linked to Fatah al-Islam. A Lebanese Army colonel said of the detainees, ‘Personally, I think they should all be hanged.’

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