Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been arbitrarily detained and tortured in Lebanon for terrorism-related charges since 2014, according to a report by Amnesty International.
The refugees interviewed by Amnesty stated that they had not been notified of the reason for their arrest and were not given access to a lawyer or their family at the beginning of their detention until they appeared in front of a military court, and sometimes not even then. In general, the refugees were detained and interrogated by intelligence officials for up to 10 days before being transferred to other centers where they were interrogated further.
“Since 2011 until now, every week, I defend two or three Syrian people [accused of terrorism] at the court. It amounts to several hundred in total and includes about 20 minors,” Alia Chalha, a Lebanese lawyer, told Amnesty.
Three of the four lawyers interviewed as part of the report stated they had defended over a hundred Syrians each and the fourth defended around 75 Syrians.
Family members struggled to find their relatives who were detained and detainees were not allowed to contact relatives or a lawyer, according to the report.
“When I asked to call my mother, the officer said: ‘I’ll bring her and put her in the cell next to you,’" said one detainee to Amnesty. Another stated that his father looked for him at a facility, but was told that he wasn't there.
While the majority of the detained refugees are men, at least some of them are women, according to Amnesty.
Syrian authorities reportedly detained women to put pressure on their husbands or relatives to confess or turn themselves in.
“I wanted to keep my dignity and didn’t want to confess something that I didn’t do," said Mustafa, a detainee, to Amnesty. "Then the investigator told an agent: ‘Go and bring his wife’. I didn’t believe that they would bring her. They put me in cell for a while and then brought me back. I saw my wife. The investigator yelled at her viciously. I cannot say the words, he was cursing her, hurting her dignity, in a very offensive way. She fell down and passed out on the floor. I told the investigator that I will sign whatever he wanted.”
One detainee told Amnesty that a female guard would occasionally beat detained women, but not as much as the male detainee.
Lebanese security officials reportedly made the terrorism accusations based on discriminatory grounds and by conflating political affiliation with "terrorism."
All of the detainees said that they were accused of being part of a group considered terrorist, such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra or the Free Syrian Army or of taking part in the battle of Arsal. The battle of Arsal was a raid by Lebanese military and Hezbollah in the northern border town of Arsal, where Syrian militias, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS had crossed the border along with refugees and taken dozens of Lebanese soldiers hostage.
Many Syrians were sent to military courts just for being part of FSA, even if they didn't commit any acts against Lebanon. Some working as nurses or journalists were accused of terrorism due to their work, such as treating wounded people during fighting in Lebanon or taking videos and pictures of fighting in Syria, according to the report.
“They asked me whether I was with or against Bashar al Assad. I said I was against him. They beat me harder… The day after, they asked me: “What do you lack? Why did you become against the Assad government?” said Karim, a journalist to Amnesty. “I said I documented Assad’s crimes. Every time I said “Assad’s crimes”, he pulled the chain further so that my body stretches and hurt.”
Investigators also reportedly expressed open hostility towards and denigration of the Sunni faith and Sunni people, with one detainee saying that interrogators cursed Sunni figures during his interrogation. Another detainee said that his interrogators accused him of taking part in the Syrian civil war. "It was not about asking me questions. It was about revenge. They told me: ‘When you started the Syrian revolution, you became a non-believer,'" said Maher, a detainee.
Almost all of the refugees were tortured or ill-treated, including with sleep deprivation, insufficient food, humiliation and stress. Mock executions, electric shocks, beatings and torture tools were also used by Lebanese security officials.
“I remember the first punch I received was on my belly. They beat me saying that I was a terrorist and I had to die," said Hassan, 16 at the time of his arrest, about his interrogation. "I had blood streaming out of my mouth. I couldn’t feel anything. Everything was blurry. I passed out for about 30 minutes I think, then they threw water on me. They took me to wash my mouth because it was covered with blood. They told me that tonight ‘the evening joy will be on you’, which meant that I was going to be their toy. Every 30 minutes, they beat me, they didn’t let me sleep for one minute. I stayed eight days.”
A security agent told one detainee that his "life will end in this place," according to the report.
“I stayed three days in a row, night and day, standing in the corridor, handcuffed and blindfolded alongside other people," explained one detainee. "We had to beg to go to the bathroom and for water. They gave us food once a day. There were officers guarding us so that we didn’t sit or sleep. If somebody tried to, they would force him to stand again and I heard beating. On the fourth day, they took me to the interrogation room. I was already psychologically weak and upset because I had had no sleep."
The refugees also faced discriminatory accusations, with interrogators making statements such as "you look like a terrorist" or "you're Syrian, don't even think of getting out of here without a charge."
Another detainee was hit with a plastic pipe on his genitals multiple times and was told by security officials, "‘I’m hitting you here so you can’t bring any more children to this world, so that they don’t contaminate this community."
The Amnesty report stated that the arrests were arbitrary because they "lacked foreseeability, were unfair and/or disproportionate. In addition, even when there were legitimate grounds, the length of the detention became excessive, making the detention arbitrary."
Lebanese officials also coerced confessions and used weak and unreliable evidence, as well as used vaguely defined and overly broad charges.
Amnesty called on the Lebanese government to end torture and ill-treatment of detainees, assign an independent body of experts to investigate the complaints, provide a remedy to those who underwent torture and end the practice of trying civilians in military courts, among other measures.