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Lebanese military probe concludes Syrian refugees died of 'natural causes'

Investigation rejects claims four men died after being tortured in Lebanese army custody after raid on their camp
An image shared on social media of men rounded up by the Lebanese army after refugee camp raids last month (screengrab)

BEIRUT - A military investigation concluded on Monday that four Syrian refugees died of "natural causes" in Lebanese army custody after being rounded up in an operation against "terrorists" hiding in refugee camps.

The army opened an inquiry last week after it was accused of torturing the four men. Pictures released of their corpses showed bruising on their bodies, welts, cuts and gashes which activists said showed they had been handcuffed, beaten and left in stress positions for hours.

The four Syrians were among 356 rounded up in a mass raid at camps near Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on 30 June. The army said they faced suicide and grenade attacks during the operation.

The military prosecutor, judge Saqr Saqr, who ordered an investigation into the deaths, announced in a statement on Monday that there was "no evidence of violence".

His statement followed a report issued by a medial forensic committee which concluded that the group of Syrian refugees had died of an assortment of health conditions including a collapsed lung, sudden heart failure and respiratory disease exacerbated by extreme heat.

The statement and reports confirmed an initial forensic report from the army earlier this month, that said there was "no evidence of violence," adding that the men died of natural causes exacerbated by the climactic conditions at the time.

But photographs seen by Middle East Eye showed huge gashes and bruising on the bodies of three of the four men, identified as Mustafa Abdel-Kareem Absi, Anas Hussein al-Hsaikeh, Khalid Hussein Moulays, and Othman Merhi Moulays.

The victims were left tied with plastic handcuffs for days on end, "to the point where it caused extreme physical damage - on both their hands and legs", said a legal source at the time, who had seen the bodies before their burial on 11 July.

An image obtained by Middle East Eye showing injuries to one of the dead men (MEE)

Family reactions

A relative of one of the victims complained to Middle East Eye that they apart from Saqr's statements, neither the families nor their legal representatives had access to the investigation's findings.

'I still stand by what I said before; he did not have any preexisting health conditions'

- relative of victim

"We are still waiting," the relative told MEE on Monday. "I still stand by what I said before; he did not have any pre-existing health conditions."

At the same time, a doctor in Arsal who had known another one of the four victims denied claims of the military that pre-existing health conditions had led to the victim's death. 

"When the [army] announced that he [the victim] had had pre-existing health conditions, we were shocked because that wasn't the case. He died a healthy man," the source told MEE.

However, a judicial source told MEE that despite the extraordinary nature of the case, full details of the investigation would not be made public.

The case had been placed under the supervision of the military judiciary, with Saqr overseeing, the source said.

At the same time, another judicial source told the Daily Star that with the medical examiner's report Saqr might now close the investigation.

EXCLUSIVE: Lebanese army accused of torturing Syrian refugees
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"He will continue studying the investigation and the direction is to seal it if no offences were committed or no responsibility to be blamed on anyone [in the military]," the source added.

Meanwhile, Chehade & Tarif, a group providing legal services for the families of the victims, demanded on Monday that the military provide full transparency for the families.

According to the legal consultancy, not revealing the full findings "violates legal standards and transparency".

‘Signs of beating'

Human rights observers had sent images of the bodies abroad earlier this month for independent examinations, amid fears that the results of the army's own investigation will not be made public.

Amnesty International representative Tarek Wheibi told MEE that according to a forensics analysis of the images, there were "clear signs of recent beatings and trauma to the heads, legs, and arms" of the four men.  

 Clear signs of recent beatings and trauma to the heads, legs, and arms

- Amnesty International 

"Amnesty International is asking for an independent and transparent investigation into these deaths and for the findings of these investigations to be made public," Wheibi told MEE.

"[We are] also asking for the findings in the forensic report that was received by Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr today to immediately be made public," he added.

In a statement  on the 20 July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the visible injuries in the photos were "consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture" and that "any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs."

A history of torture

The possibility of death under torture in Lebanese army custody comes against a background of previous accounts of abuse by security services.

Last December, Human Rights Watch published the harrowing account of a Syrian refugee who said he was beaten, verbally abused and had a rod pushed up his anus at Rehanieh military police prison on the suspicion of being gay.

HRW has thoroughly documented 10 cases in which civilians in Lebanese military detention said that they were tortured. This included during interrogations, when none of them had access to a lawyer or their families.

"The use of torture is taking place [in the Lebanese security system] we cannot deny that," George Ghali, programmes director of Lebanese human rights organisation Alef, told MEE.

"There hasn't been proper accountability for these cases which is creating a culture of impunity, tolerance and acceptance."

The UN Committee Against Torture has echoed similar concerns. 

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