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Syrians tortured in Lebanese detention centers: A tale of impunity

More than two decades after Lebanon ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, and despite anti-torture legislation, torture and mistreatment by the country’s security branches persists.

26 June 2022

BEIRUT – A police raid turned Teim’s life upside down. In 2019, Lebanese security officials raided his house “by mistake” the Syrian refugee said. “I was not the one they were looking for, but they took my neighbor, and me along with him.”  

The ill-treatment started on the ride to a detention center in Beirut, where he was beaten for nine days. Teim gave up when the security officials detained his son. “They started beating him in front of me, so I told them to put whatever they wanted on the confession,” he said. Lebanese officials brought terrorism charges against him, accusing him of belonging to the Free Syrian Army. 

Teim signed the confession without reading it. His case is not unique: Years of impunity have led to a culture of torture in Lebanese detention centers. While torture can affect anyone in the country, the precarity of Syrian refugees in Lebanon makes them one of the groups most vulnerable to mistreatment if detained by the authorities. 

In recent decades, Lebanon has officially made some progress by passing anti-torture legislation and ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture, created this day in 1987. But testimony from former detainees shows that torture is far from a thing of the past.

That is what the head of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), Nika Kvaratskhelia, found in the SPT’s unannounced visit to Lebanon in May. “Twelve years have passed but most of the recommendations from our first visit remain to be implemented, and the efforts made by the Government had no major impact on the situation of people deprived of their liberty,” he said in a statement. 

Since 2010, the SPT has recommended Lebanon establish a “properly functioning” national preventive mechanism, fix “deplorable” conditions in detention sites and address prolonged pretrial detention. 

Teim says he had no access to a lawyer while being investigated and was forced to sign a confession under torture. Other former detainees describe similar behavior by Lebanese security forces. These practices, together with what advocates describe as a lack of judicial appetite to apply existing anti-torture legislation and investigate torture cases, have forged a climate of impunity. 

After Teim confessed, his son was released. He was taken to a military court, where he showed the judge bruises on his body. “I told the judge, ‘This is my body after seven days detained, you can see the traces of beatings, and they tortured my son in front of me, what could I have done?’” 

“There are no rights, we are in Lebanon,” he said.

Teim went to prison for a few months until he was released last year after his lawyer showed that he was mistakenly arrested in the 2019 raid. 

Teim is one of the torture survivors assisted by Nassim Center, a project by the Lebanese Center of Human Rights (CLDH) that provides psychological, social and legal support to victims of torture and their families. In 2021, the Beirut-based center treated 58 victims of torture and their families. Many patients are Syrians.

All the names of Syrian sources in this report have been changed, and identifying details—such as the involvement of specific security branches and where sources were detained—are withheld for security reasons

‘Anyone they see as vulnerable’

The UN defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted…by a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” for  purposes such as obtaining a confession. 

In the last decade in Lebanon, several human rights organizations have documented how security branches (Military Intelligence, the General Security Directorate and Internal Security Forces) use severe beatings, electricity, suspension from the ceiling, stress positions and psychological torture such as threats or solitary confinement during interrogations.

The profile of a torture victim in Lebanon is broad, and can include “anyone they see as vulnerable,” said Nadine Moubarak, Project and Research Officer at CLDH. It “could be by the discrimination of nationality, race, or even if the person has no family or has no financial support to afford a lawyer.”

Those accused of terrorism charges or drug-related charges tend to be “where torture cases concentrate,” explained Mohammed Sablouh, a lawyer specialized in torture cases and the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Center at the Tripoli Bar Association. Sablouh argued that international support for Lebanon to combat terrorism and drug related crimes in recent years led the security apparatus to “detain as many as people as possible, and they use the worst types of beatings” in order to extract a drug or terrorism related confession, so they can show “the international community they are fighting terrorism and drugs.” 

In 2021, Amnesty International published a report gathering the testimonies of 26 Syrians who suffered torture in Lebanon while detained for terrorism-related charges.  

Syrians are among the vulnerable groups to be ill-treated while detained. In Lebanon, 84 percent of Syrian refugees do not have legal residency. This exposes them to arbitrary detention at checkpoints, and they have little recourse if their rights are violated.  

Forty Syrians were tortured while arbitrarily detained in 2021, according to a report by Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) published last May. That year, UNHCR provided legal assistance to 950 detained Syrians and provided “tailored support” to individuals who reported “allegations of ill-treatment,” UNHCR Lebanon spokesperson Dalal Harb told Syria Direct. UNHCR could not disclose how many detainees reported ill-treatment “due to the sensitivity of the topic at hand,” Harb said.

Detained twice, tortured twice

In 2017, Azar was driving with his partner Lia, a trans woman, when the Syrian couple was stopped at an army checkpoint. The officer checked their phones and found photos of them together. “They asked me if he was my partner and I had sex with him,” Lia said. “I said yes, I didn’t know that it was forbidden here.”  

Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code punishes “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year of prison. 

Soon after the couple was detained, they say the officers beat them both and called them homophobic slurs. “They beat me and then they shocked Lia with electricity in front of me,” Azar said. “When I saw that, I told them I will confess anything.”

Azar and Lia signed a confession to “violating public morals” without reading it. They were detained for a month. For the first 10 days, they had no access to a lawyer. When Azar’s family sent him one, the lawyer “started extorting me,” threatening to tell his family about his relationship with Lia, he said. 

The incident left them both traumatized and fearful of authorities. A year later, Azar was arrested while buying hashish. “The police beat me in my head and I lost consciousness,” he said. Azar was accused of being the dealer instead of the buyer.

The investigation lasted a month. “For 14 days, they beat me” and used a stress position, Azar said. Like Teim, in court he told the judge his confession was not sincere and showed him the traces of beatings in his body. “The judge said it didn’t show. He shrugged and acted like it was just normal,” Azar said.

Azar was sentenced to five years in the infamous and overcrowded Roumieh prison, where he shared a 2×3-meter cell with eight other people. “My first two years I slept in the corridor, it was very dirty,” he said. 

After finishing his sentence, Azar was released a few months ago. Since then, he has been coming to Nassim Center for therapy sessions. “I’m just trying to live my life as before I was detained, when we were just working, and we were happy together,” he explained. 

Lia has been approved for resettlement in Canada and will be leaving Lebanon soon, but UNHCR informed Azar his “file is not good for resettlement,” he said. The couple still hopes to find a way to live together in Canada. “Our hope is to live in peace, in quietness, where nobody bothers us,” Lia said.

The art of passing laws and not applying them

In 2000, Lebanon signed the UN Convention Against Torture. In 2017, it passed Anti-Torture Law 65 criminalizing torture and establishing jail sentences for those who commit an act of torture. 

But over the five years of Law 65’s existence, no one has been convicted under it. One of the few cases brought under the law is the case of Hassan Dikaa, a Lebanese man who died in police custody in 2019, allegedly after being tortured. “The case has been in the investigation phase for three years, and there’s no movement,” lawyer Sablouh said.

“We’re always implementing laws, always the first to ratify treaties. Theoretically there is progress, but in practice it’s just a paper—torture is still being implemented,” said Moubarak.

In 2020, the Lebanese Parliament amended Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure so lawyers could be present during initial investigations. “If they applied Article 47, it would stop 90 percent of torture cases,” Sablouh said. Lawyers and rights groups have repeatedly said Article 47 is not being applied. 

“The judges are the first who should make sure that the law is being implemented,” said Moubarak in reference to Law 65 and Article 47. “It’s a vicious cycle: as long as there’s no accountability, we are not breaking that cycle,” she added. “It is not about the law, it is about the culture of torture.” 

That “culture of torture” is, for Sablouh, the main obstacle. “The culture in the judiciary and in the security apparatus is that beating is a must to get a confession,” he said. This leads to a climate of impunity in which security branches know they are protected by the judiciary, and believe they are “helping the country by extracting confessions.” 

A 2019 CLDH study looked into how torture is understood as an interrogation tool. “In the interrogation process, there’s always this aggressivity,” Moubarak said. “The idea is ‘we want you to fear us so you give us what we want to hear.’” Security officers also lack awareness about what constitutes torture. “Some interrogators still believe that slapping the person is not considered torture, or that putting him alone in small dark room only hearing drops of water for hours” is not torture but a tool to “find the right answer,” she explained. 

Although torture is still a reality in detention facilities, pressure from the international community has “yielded some results,” according to Sablouh. “Methods like electrocution or blanko [suspension from the ceiling by the wrists] are not used as much as a few years ago, when every Syrian coming from Arsal would have signs that they had been electrocuted,” he added. 

Interrogators have adapted torture methods to avoid leaving obvious physical evidence, said Sablouh. “There’s still torture, but in a more subtle way,” Sablouh said, citing sleep deprivation or the sound of a tap dripping. CLDH’s 2019 study documented a practice in which detainees “were given water for 48 hours and they were not allowed to go to the bathroom, so they had to be standing, naked, peeing themselves and feeling humiliated,” Moubarak explained.

‘Who am I going to complain to?’

Jawad was a child when he fled Syria with his family in 2012. And he was still under age when, in 2017, he was detained for 52 days after an altercation at a nightclub in Lebanon. “The officer shocked me with electricity on my arm, and beat me with a steel stick and opened a wound in my hand,” Jawad said. He was not allowed to see a doctor. 

After his release, he did not file a complaint about his treatment. “Who am I going to complain to? The state?” he asked, laughing.

In 2019, despite the risk of returning to Syria for men in military age, Jawad attempted to go to his hometown in Syria to get documentation papers, but was immediately arrested at the border crossing. He was tortured for three months in a detention center in Syria, where three of his ribs were broken, he said. Jawad was then sent to serve in the Syrian army, which he did for a year before he was able to escape and return irregularly to Lebanon.

Last year, Jawad was briefly detained again after an altercation in the street. This time, he received a visit from a UNHCR-provided lawyer, but she did not do much, he said. “She told me she couldn’t help me. She was talking very fast, like, wanting to leave, and then just left,” Jawad said.  

He was ultimately released, but did not fully regain his freedom. “If they detain me on the street, they will deport me. If I go back to Syria, I have seven years in prison waiting for me” for fleeing the military, he explained.

Jawad feels trapped. Because he does not have legal residency, he cannot work, and he is scared to venture into the street anyway, in case he is stopped at a checkpoint. “I don’t go out of the house much, just to come here to Nassim Center” for therapy, he said.

He can’t return to Syria, can’t get resettlement, and his life in Lebanon is upended by a deportation threat. “I’m trapped in the middle,” he said.

‘I couldn’t take torture anymore’

Bilal was detained in 2015 at the Beirut airport while trying to flee to Turkey to reunite with his family. During the war in Syria, he had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group opposed to the Syrian regime that at the time was Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

In the summer of 2014, the Lebanese army and Hezbollah clashed with Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in the area of Arsal, a Lebanese town close to the border with Syria. The fighting killed 69 civilians, fighters and soldiers.

After Bilal was detained, he admitted to being part of Jabhat al-Nusra, but denied any involvement in the Arsal attacks. “For 24 hours they forced me to stand up, not allowing me to sit. They beat me and did blanko,” he recalled. Every day was the same routine: “They beat me on the head until I bled, then stopped.” After five days, he signed a confession to killing a Lebanese soldier. “I couldn’t take the torture anymore.”

At the military court, he informed the judge he confessed under torture, but was sentenced to death. In Lebanon, that sentence translates to life imprisonment since the country has an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment.

For seven years, Bilal has been in Roumieh prison. When he first entered, he was taken by a security branch for further interrogation. “I was standing for 24 hours, they beat me on my sensitive parts for an hour,” he said by phone from Roumieh. He obtained a medical report from doctors in the prison documenting the traces of the beating and filed a complaint. The same security branch, after learning he raised a complaint, took him and beat him. 

He never complained again.

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