Lebanon: Further investigation needed into deaths of Syrian refugees in military custody

The Lebanese authorities must disclose the full findings of their investigation into the deaths of four Syrian refugees, said Amnesty International, after the country’s military prosecutor yesterday revealed that a forensic report concluded that they had died of “natural causes”. The men died after they were arrested in a military raid on the town of Arsal on 30 June 2017.
Forensic analysis of photographs showing the bodies of three of the four deceased men, commissioned by Amnesty International, reveals signs of recent beatings and trauma to the head, legs and arms suggesting they may have been tortured.
“It is extremely important for the full findings of the forensic report commissioned by the military prosecutor to be made public and accessible to the lawyers and families of the victims,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International.
“Independent forensic analysis of photographs of the bodies obtained by Amnesty International raise serious questions about whether these men faced torture or other ill-treatment while in custody. International standards require that the full details of the official forensic report be disclosed. If torture is deemed the cause of death, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) must take the necessary steps to bring those responsible to justice, in a fair trial.”
Prior to yesterday’s announcement, a statement issued by the LAF on 4 July claimed the four men, Anas Hussein al-Hasiki, Mustafa Abdulkarim Abse, Khaled Hussein el-Mleis and Othman Merhi el-Mleis had died of “chronic diseases” and “climate conditions”. Amnesty International saw reports by a forensic doctor at Riyak Hospital dated 1 and 2 July 2017 saying that the two men died of heart attacks and one of a stroke and that their bodies showed no signs of physical violence.
Both these reports and the statement made by the military prosecutor that the men died of “natural causes” are inconsistent with Amnesty International’s findings.
According to information gathered by Amnesty International one of the deceased Syrian men, Anas Hussein al-Hasiki, was arrested from his flat outside al-Qariya camp during the raids. He was taken to Riyak detention centre where he was repeatedly beaten by soldiers in front of other detainees. According to eye-witness accounts, he was severely beaten on three separate occasions, losing consciousness each time. The final time, the soldiers beating him tried to wake him up by forcing water down his mouth but were unable to revive him. He died a couple of hours later.
Efforts by lawyers representing the families of three of the deceased men to find out their causes of death were quashed by military officials. Despite the lawyers receiving a court order for another forensic doctor to examine the bodies and analyze medical samples, the samples were confiscated from the lawyer by  Military Intelligence on 6 July. The military prosecution later announced that it had opened its own investigation and had assigned three forensic doctors to examine the bodies. However, the lawyers representing the families were never informed of the results of the examinations. Neither they nor the families have been given a copy of the forensic report completed by the three forensic doctors.
Amnesty International urges the Lebanese authorities to ensure an impartial investigation into the deaths of the four men in custody, in addition to other allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention and torture and other ill-treatment. Suspected perpetrators must be immediately suspended from carrying out military operations pending the conclusion of these investigations.
“While we understand the Lebanese authorities’ duty to counter security threats and to protect the population from deadly attacks, they must do so while respecting the human rights protections set out in international law, as well as ensuring accountability for any human rights violations committed by army or security officers.”
According to information received by Amnesty International, officers from the LAF entered al-Nour and al-Qariya camps in Arsal at around 5am on 30 June 2017 in what they termed as ”pre-emptive” raids. Shortly afterwards, residents said that they had heard an explosion followed by gunshots. The army then sent in reinforcements including armoured cars that destroyed several tents as they entered al-Nour camp. According to eyewitnesses, soldiers rounded up all the men and boys in the tents, including children under the age of 18, and men over 60 years old. The men and boys were tied up and made to lie on the ground. Amnesty International has seen photos purportedly showing large numbers of men lying on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs during the raids.
During these raids on al-Nur and al-Qariya camps in Arsal, the LAF arrested and detained more than 350 males, including children and elderly men. Amnesty International spoke to several sources in the area who said that those detained were not told the reason for their arrest and were denied access to their families who were not informed of their location. They also said detainees were subjected to verbal insults, repeated beatings with various objects, as well as being deprived of water and sanitary facilities. Some of the detained men were beaten repeatedly with a rubber hose on their backs, heads, arms and legs and were kicked and stepped on with heavy boots on their ribs.
Eyewitnesses also said the soldiers made women hand over their mobile phones while verbally insulting them. They also reportedly destroyed some of the phones and tore the clothes off women who had refused to hand over or had tried to hide their phones. Amnesty International received information that a similar pattern of abuses took place in al-Qariya camp. Syrian refugees living in rented flats in a building close to the camp known as the Mujama’ were also arrested. The reason for these widespread arrests and roundups are unknown to Amnesty International but come amidst rising tensions and xenophobia against refugees from Syria and calls for them to return to Syria.
On 15 July, the LAF announced that it had arrested 356 men during the raids, out of which it had released 43 men and 257 were referred to the General Security Office for reasons linked to lack of legal status in Lebanon. The LAF also announced that 56 men were referred to military prosecution on charges of “committing different kinds of terrorist acts”, including involvement in the 2014 attack on military centres in Arsal and belonging or working with armed groups such as the group calling itself the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other “similar terrorist organizations”.
The raids came two weeks before a security operation in Arsal targeting armed groups on the Syrian border close to Arsal. Amnesty International has called on those involved in the fighting to prioritize the protection of Lebanese residents as well as Syrian refugees in the area.