Is justice for everyone? Arbitrary detention and torture of Islamists in Lebanon

Publishing Date: 
March, 2016
Conflict Analysis Project
Author(s): Camille Lons
Although it is difficult to clearly establish the link between “Islamists” and high rates of arbitrary detention and torture, the security and political context surrounding the issues make Islamists a particularly vulnerable population to arbitrary arrest, detention, unfair sentences, torture and ill-treatment. This article aims to understand the special circumstances of the “Islamists" case, and demonstrate the wide range of Human Rights violations perpetrated under the protection and guise of preserving State security. It is based on a series of interviews with lawyers, representative of Human Rights NGOs and a former detainee.
Keywords: Justice, Islamists, Arbitrary detention, Roumieh Prison

To cite this paper: Camille Lons,"", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2016-03-01 00:00:00. doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.40001

Cited by: 1
Full text: 
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Family members of Roumieh's Islamist inmates protest outside the Interior Ministry in Beirut, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban,

In June 2015, videos on social media revealed how detainees of Roumieh prison were being tortured by officials. This, in turn, caused a huge outcry amongst the political class, as well as a great response from the general public within Lebanon.1 Although Lebanese officials pleaded with the public  not to judge and make generalizations about the videos too quickly, this scandal raised questions concerning what is currently happening in Roumieh prison. The detainees showed in the video were prisoners from the “block B” of Roumieh, famous for housing Islamist detainees accused of terrorism. Although torture and ill-treatment are prohibited by Lebanese law,  both are known2 to be a current practice in Lebanese prisons. The scandal of the so called Islamist Roumieh detainees thus poses the question of which form torture and ill-treatment takes when it comes to detainees labelled as “Islamists”. This is especially important to investigate in relation to a context of fragile political and security circumstances.

The conflicts that Lebanon faces today are multifold. Along with the armed conflicts at its borders, Lebanon continues to confront political and economic instability within its own territory. This instability has been prevalent since the end of the Lebanese civil war. The strengthening of Sunni Islamists movements in the region3 and the constantly growing number of Syrian refugees since 20114 in Lebanon make the country fear the spread and intensification of conflicts.  

Since 2005, hundreds of people  have been arrested and kept in preventive detention for being so-called “Islamists” and potential terrorists, some of these individuals serving  years in prison.5 By July 2014, most of the detainees were convicted, but their lawyers believed that many of them were harshly sentenced based on confessions they had allegedly made while being tortured.6

The issues of arbitrary detention and torture in prisons are major problems currently challenging the Lebanese judicial system. Though Lebanon ratified the “United Nation Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” in 2000, and is a party of the Geneva Conventions (1949) and their two additional protocols (1977), national laws still fail to prohibit torture efficiently. Notably, even if the issues of arbitrary detention, torture and unfair trials concern all those imprisoned within Lebanon, the population of those categorized as Islamists may be particularly vulnerable to these policy shortfalls as they are arrested under the charge of threatening State security. Moreover many lawyers, activists and Human Rights organizations remain reluctant to openly fight for islamists and their cases. Lack of information, personal prejudice and explicit threats prevent organisations from defending Islamists and protesting clearly against the injustice faced by Islamist detainees. With this, the question ”is the right to justice and a fair trial the same for everyone?”, emerges.

In this article we aim to understand the specificity of the “Islamists" case. We will demonstrate the wide range of Human Rights violations perpetrated under the protection and guise of preserving State security. This security situation puts forward mechanisms of silence followed by lawyers and Human Rights activists. This article is based on a series of interviews with lawyers, representative of Human Rights NGOs and a former detainee.

“Islamist”, a slur and incorrect categorization, subject to rumors and discrimination

Islamist groups became a significant force in Lebanon in the 1980s during the Civil war.7 More specifically, Islamist presence manifested itself remarkably during the short rule of the Islamic Unification Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami) in Tripoli from 1983 to 1985. After the civil war, the presence of Islamist trends was marked by several violent clashes that occurred between Islamist organisations and the Lebanese authorities such as in Ain el-Helwe camp with the group Usbat al-Ansar in 1982 and 2003, and in the camp of Nahr el-Bared in 2007 with Fatah al-Islam, led by Chakr el-Absi.8 However, the term “Islamist” is used widely by politicians and media to describe very different individuals in diverse contexts.  It usually refers in the common perception to Sunni Muslims and is often exchangeably used with the term “extremist”. Officially, “Islamist detainees” referred as such are in reality accused for terrorism charges, but both terms tend to be associated in discourses. Therefore, it is important to define the term, “Islamist” in this article and analyse how the term is used by different actors within Lebanon.

The blurriness and ambiguity of the term as it is used by state authorities, along with its highly charged connotation in the media and public sphere, leads to an often unclear premise on which unjust arrests of islamists  are allowed to occur. Saad el-Din Chatila, representative of Al-Karama Foundation in Lebanon9 recalled that many individuals arrested during the course of the Nahr el-Bared conflict were arrested with the accusation of being “Islamists”, with the state and media not taking into account the actual affiliation of the detainees:

“I don’t really agree with the term of ‘Islamist’ that media and the authorities use a lot. Some of them are not really Islamists. They may be Muslims but not Islamists. Not all of them were really involved with Fatah al-Islam, but they were related more or less to it so they were all charged as Islamists. […] Since the Syrian crisis the number of arrests increased. Sometimes at checkpoints when they see you are Syrian, they stop you, try to see your mobile device, your pictures, and if you have some pictures related more or less to Islamist movements, they arrest you. There are lots of prejudices. Sometimes when you are Syrian, when you have a long beard or when you look too ‘Muslim’, they can arrest you.”10

For Saad el-Din Chatila, this unfair treatment against Islamists is not something new in Lebanon, but has been sensibly increasing since the last decade, and more recently with the Syrian crisis. It seems that the stereotype of “Muslim” and “Islamist”, which has been propagated by the neoconservatives in the United States within the “war on terrorism” has developed into a globalized term. In the Lebanese context, this political prejudice has only intensified with the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and radicalization processes within it. Saad el-Din Chatila explains this dynamic in the following way:

“There is a threat that radicalization in Syria could spread in Lebanon. It has been a long time that the government is chasing Islamists and terrorists, but now as it is in the mood of the region to fight against terrorism, the number of cases increased,”11

Individuals identified as “Islamists” have often been subject to many speculations, rumors and false accusations of terrorism, leading to severe discrimination. With the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on the Lebanese political scene, this discrimination goes beyond the global fear of “Islamist terror” and reveals political fragmentations within Lebanon through the unjust arrests and trials Islamists are subject to. The fact that the term “Islamist” only refers in these cases to Sunni Muslims is in itself the mark of a complex relationship between the government and Hezbollah, and of changing political agendas we will explore later in this paper.

Fieldwork accounts from NGO workers and lawyers, as well as reports concerning detainees arrested under the qualification of “Islamists”, show that  the term “Islamist” does not often correspond to an established and clearly defined reality, and is more so used as a way to generate support from society around these arrests in order to manifest certain political agendas. By defining the detainees as “Islamists”, the aim is to make these individuals appear as criminal and dangerous, even before any evidence is found against them.

Human rights violations in prison toward Islamist detainees

A detention is considered as arbitrary when it does not respect national legislation and international standards ratified by Lebanon as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite this, the term of “arbitrary detention” has never been clearly defined in international law. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention established in 1991 defined as arbitrary any detention that is contrary to the Human Rights provisions of the major international human rights instruments.12 It defines three main categories of arbitrary detention:

  • Detention not relying on a legal basis for the deprivation of liberty (as when a person is kept in detention after the completion of his sentence, or kept in detention without having a trial)

  • Detention of a person for exercising his/her rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 7, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20 and 21) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 12, 18, 19, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27)

  • Detention of a person after a trial which did not comply the standards for a fair trial set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international instruments accepted by the State concerned.13

Islamist detainees could eventually belong to the three categories of arbitrary detention as many were (I) detained for years without any legal basis, (II) arrested and detained mostly because of their political opinions without proof of being real threat to State security, and, finally, (III) are still detained today after unfair trials that rely mostly on confessions made under torture . The main problem concerning arbitrary detention in Lebanon, according to Mahmoud Sablouh, is that “there is no legal limit to pretrial detention for the judicial council particularly when it’s an ‘exceptional trial’14 that allows the person to be detained for a 100 years.” Notably, according to Sablouh, a legislative draft was proposed in 2009 to limit pretrial detention but is still in the parliament for negotiations. “The problem is that there is no accountability in the system. No one is held accountable in case an innocent has been detained for nothing.”

There have been many cases registered in Lebanon of Islamists that have been arrested and detained under the charges of  planning, assisting, or carrying out “terrorist attacks”, or being a “threat to the state security.”15 The cases of those arrested who were allegedly connected to Fatah al-Islam after the conflict of Nahr el-Bared in 200716 can be instanced as an example of human rights violations toward Islamists. Approximately 425 persons were arrested in 2007.17 According to ALEF’s 2008 report18, many detainees had been arbitrarily arrested because of one of their family members being detained or imprisoned on allegations of involvement with Fatah al-Islam. Most of the people arrested were arbitrarily detained for up to seven years before getting a trial. Volunteers and witnesses reported that many people were beaten, ill-treated or even tortured during their detention. Some of them already injured or in bad health conditions did not even survive the interrogations.19 As the lawyer Mahmoud Sablouh explained, 

“The case of Fatah al-Islam stayed seven years before trials began. The Union of Islamic Jurists was one of the first to ask for trials to begin. And later the disaster became clear. How many were innocent? How many were sentenced for two years but spent in reality nine years in prison?”20

Nahr el-Bared trials started in 2013 and were completely finished in July 2014. Around 50 people were established innocent and were released without any compensation for their arbitrary arrest. Those who were jailed for nine years instead of the two they were sentenced for also received the no compensation for their extra time in prison. “They lost their integrity, their money, their years, their health, they now have many diseases. No dignity, no health, no money, no compensation,"21 states lawyer Maha Fatha, summarising their situation. Although other clashes happened before and after Nahr el-Bared, such as the conflict of Dannieh in 1999-200022 the case of Fatah al-Islam marked a turning point in the relations between the Lebanese authorities and Islamist organisations. In fact, Sablouh stated that “the Lebanese government started arresting Islamists with [the conflict of] Dannieh, but random arrests started with the case of Fatah al-Islam.”23 With the current Syrian crisis, tensions between parties increased along with suspicion. Several clashes happened between the Lebanese army and Islamists such as those against Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in June 2013 in Saida24 and those against Syrian rebels in Arsal in August 2014.25 Thus, the spread of regional instability through Islamist activity is increasingly seen as a major threat to national security. As lawyer Mahmoud Sablouh explains:

“There are new cases. There are the cases of Syrians or Lebanese going to fight in Syria. Many of them were caught in Tripoli’s port or at the airport in Beirut. Some of them   went and came back and were caught in the airport. Some of them were accused of recruiting people outside Lebanon. The military court has toughened on them after the issue of the kidnapped soldiers.”26

In these strained circumstances, arbitrary detentions of Islamists increased. But even before, Islamists underwent often unclear trials and interrogation practices. The case of Malek Y.27 is one of them. He was arrested in 2005 with a man called Ghassan Slaiby and seven other people under the accusation of having plotted the assassination of Hassan Nasrallah. Malek knew about the charges against him only a few days after watching television, according to his declaration. He was never interrogated concerning Hassan Nasrallah, he was ill-treated and no lawyer was present during the interrogations. 

“We were detained for three years without any proof and Hassan Nasrallah came out several times and said that he has forgiven us. [...] The majority of people don’t know anything about the charge. They are just related to Ghassan Slaiby. I was with al-Dama, they are an international proselytizing group that has nothing to do with politics and war[...] They are fighting us just because we are Sunna.”28 

After being released, Malek Y. was arrested a second time in 2013 after having been providing aid to Syrians according to his declaration. “I said I was helping Syrians and they turned it into terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra, that I was carrying guns.” Once again, no proof was found against him. He was sentenced a year later and spent two more years in Roumieh, in the building B and D reserved for security cases. Although he admits he was supporting the Syrian revolution, Malek Y. always denied that he had been militarily involved in it:

“We were sympathizers of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. But we have never done anything in Lebanon, we don’t have weapons and never carried them. We were helping Syrian refugees through associations.”29

Malek states that he was tortured and humiliated during his detention in Roumieh:

“My foot is still injured today. They moved us under the rain from the building B to D wearing only boxers. They kept torturing us, using the balanco30 or hitting us with a stick. There is a machine that electrocutes. They took us to building D without mattresses nor clothes. There is a young man named Omar D., they shot him in his eye during torture and he had to have a surgery. There is another guy named Azzam, his eye was also taken out. There are people in prison whose hands and feet are chopped off.”31

According to the general secretary of the CLDH ( the Lebanese Center for Human Rights) Wadih al-Asmar, “the crime of torture is still considered as a means of investigation in Lebanon, despite all the trainings the security services received years ago in order to learn alternative techniques avoiding torture.”32 The 2013 report of CLDH on arbitrary detention and torture in Lebanon states that 67% of Lebanese detainees are subjected to torture or very serious ill-treatments and have not been granted access to justice and reparation.33 ALEF’s 2008 report notes that the military intelligence practiced torture routinely against Fatah al-Islam detainees and dozens of Palestinian refugees during and after the conflict in Nahr el-Bared refugee camp from May to September 2007.34 According to Mahmoud Sablouh, the Union of the Islamic Jurist along with the Association of Muslim Scholars documented 40 cases of torture amongst Fatah al-Islam detainees, two of which reached the United Nations but were never addressed by the Lebanese government.35 For the lawyer Maha Fatha, “torture cases happen to everyone, but the big cases are with Islamists.”36

Torture tactics are usually used in order to extort information related to the accusation for which one is detained, but they may often be used as  free cruelty and collective punishment.

Wadih al-Asmar of CLDH stresses that while Islamist detainees do not undergo any specific detention treatment, including torture, he maintains that Islamists are a target population of arrest.

“Our reports show that all the persons arrested by the intelligence service of the army have been tortured, whether they were considered Islamists or not. Same in the police services when they need to make them admit something or give information. There is no unwarranted torture, they use it mainly when they want to make you say something. So there is no specificity for Islamists regarding torture, there is only a specific targeting when they are arrested.”37

This targeting is further facilitated by the fact that Islamists can be detained by the practice of what Wadih al-Asmar calls “liaison documents”, which is used by the Lebanese security services, and means that a person can be arrested, detained, tortured and sentenced to prison for a simple anonymous denunciation. According to Wadih al-Asmar, this practice was made illegal in the Lebanese law a few years ago but is still currently used, though it was proven that most of the accusations were false.

Though in our interviews the practice of torture was often related to the detainees being Islamists, it is difficult to figure out if this practice is more frequent or used  with much more specificity with Islamist detainees. Most NGOs do not have access to the buildings where this population is held in Roumieh. Until very recently, only the International Red Cross (ICRC) was authorized to visit the Islamist detainees’ bloc. Malek Y. recalls his prison and torture experience in Roumieh the following way:

“They used to ask me what my case was and once they knew my case, they would torture me. I used to fear telling them what my case was. If someone told them his case is ISIS or something they would do whatever they wanted with him. He’d say drugs and they’d leave him. Once they knew it was for terrorism they would torture the person.”38

For Saad el-Din Chatila it is the charge of terrorism that makes Islamists more likely to face torture: “Torture concerns all kinds of detainees. But because these cases were related to terrorism or Israeli spies, they were arrested by spies and intelligence people. These services are more likely to use torture.”39

Unfair trials and particularly harsh sentences for “Islamist” detainees

As “Islamist” detainees are often subjected to torture during their interrogations, their trials rely on confessions they made under torture. Therefore, in many cases, these trials cannot be considered to be fair. Saad el-Din Chatila added that“Some of the detainees explained during the trials that they were submitted to torture during the interrogations, but this wasn’t taken in account.”40

For Maha Fatha, sentences are often harsher when they concern people labelled as Islamists, as they are supposed to threaten the security of the state:

“[In the case of Nahr el-Bared] maybe around 2/3 were sentenced, and 1/3 released. For the ones sentenced, the sentence was very harsh. Most of them are innocent. The people who were able to run away, like Chak el-Absi, they were the criminals. But the people who stayed and waited for the army to capture them, were innocent. Some of those who gave themselves to the army were shot.”41

Besides the fact that many sentences were based on declarations made under torture, the juridical procedure itself has also perpetrated abuses. First of all, many Islamist cases have been judged by the Military Court instead of the Civil Court42, which is illegal and impacts the severity of their sentence. “The military court shouldn’t be the one judging these people. The procedure is never respected,”43 explains Maha Fatha. In 1997, the military courts were criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In its report, on May 5th, 1997, it expressed its concerns regarding “the broad scope of the jurisdiction of military courts in Lebanon, especially its extension beyond disciplinary matters and its application to civilians”, but also regarding the lack of procedures followed by these courts. According to ALEF’s report, the trials before military tribunals are far from meeting international standards of fairness, verdicts are not always motivated in details, access to a lawyer is limited, procedures are not subject to control by any independent judicial authority, and trials are often summary.44

Moreover, Mahmoud Sablouh who worked on many Islamist cases including the case of Fatah al-Islam, explains that many detainees were sometimes on trial for several indictments with the same accusation:  

    “We were surprised to know that most of them are on trial for three cases with the same accusations in the judicial council and they would have two or three files with the same accusations again in the military courts. It is a legal right [not to be] criminalized for a crime twice. They would criminalize them five times. If the judge sentences one to 15 years of prison and that person has five files with the same accusation, he would never get out of prison.”45

Mahmoud Sablouh gives the example of the case of Tarek M. who had two files in the military court and three files in the Justice Council for al-Tal, Bahsas and Fatah al-Islam. While he was found innocent by the Military court, he was accused by the Justice Council of being part of Fatah al-Islam because of a map he was accused to have written. He was tortured in the Ministry of Defense and served six months in solitary confinement, but he never confessed. A military expert said the handwriting of the map was his although this allegation should have been made by a civil expert and the Judicial Council refused to provide one. Tarek was finally sentenced to 15 years of prison though he should have been sentenced to three years maximum according to Mahmoud Sablouh. For the lawyer, all these abuses in the legal procedure are linked to the fact that terrorism draws on pressures from different political actors: 

“The sentences had been printed ten times and modified. I was there, it was in front of me. They kept on modifying the sentences. Some attribute it to the pressures from the American government. Some attribute it to the pressures of the army’s intelligence. But for me, for example, one of the government’s ministers, Mohammad Al-Safadi, told me that the Attorney General Said Mirza called him and asked him to protect him (Mirza) from the Americans.”46

For the lawyer Hala Hamze, also a member of the Union of Islamic Jurists, all the dysfunctionality of the juridical system comes from the fact that in the case of Islamists, justice becomes a political arena:

“They weren’t able to decide on this file because the big files in Lebanon are resolved politically, not judicially, unfortunately. The point was that they stayed in prison because the political situation doesn’t allow for their release. [...] Whenever something happens in Syria it automatically reflects here, they become more rigorous with Islamists. There is a greater number of arrests, the sentences are tough.”47

The relationship between the Lebanese government and Islamist organisations has always been ambiguous and changing, depending on the political and strategic interests of the different forces in power. After Rafic Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Sunni Islamist organisations benefited from the attempt of Saad al-Hariri to create a united Sunni front in opposition to the Shia led Hezbollah.48

As the group was growing and gaining power however, the government suddenly repressed Islamist organisations  as it started to fear their growing influence. As the lawyer Hala Hamze explains:

“At one point, the 14th of March coalition supported the Syrian revolution and any Islamist group within it. It has also supported the fighters in Bab el-Tabbaneh. Suddenly, the 14th of March pulled out and all the fighters became terrorists. They felt that it [the revolution] was over they pulled out and considered them terrorists so they wouldn’t be a threat to them. Even though they have supported them and considered them heroes.”49

The heavy political stakes behind the case of the Islamists made them extremely complex and sensitive. This can be exemplified in the different treatment that various “Islamist” fighters experience. Many of our interlocutors mentioned the severe treatment of suspects being accused of supporting militant Sunni groups in Syria versus the less harsh treatment of those fighting with Hezbollah alongside the Syrian regime. This can be attributed to the political and strategic interests of the Lebanese authorities. Maha Fatha addresses this unequal treatment from a political angle noting how equal crimes done by various populations receive different, or no, legal punishments:

“All the persons who went to Syria from the Sunni, to fight or for any reason or to help in humanitarian aid, they are captured. But anyone who goes from the Shia are not captured. The Shias are thousands, and they are not arrested, the borders are opened to them, they go and come, with weapons or whatever they like. But anyone who comes to help the Syrian people is captured.”50

It is important to note here that the discrimination Sunni Islamists face is not only due to the general political powers of Lebanon, but also often attributed to the sectarian composition of the judicial authorities in Lebanon, as Maha Fatha notes:

“The government now is captured by Hezbollah. The military court is illegal, the head judge on it is an officer, Shia, he didn’t study law. It’s illegal. The military court should be only for soldiers, not for civilians. Shias are governing the court. In the Supreme court, it is different, but they don’t have so much space to be free."51

Contrastingly, for Wadih al-Asmar, the targeting of Sunni Islamists crossing the Syrian border should not be expressed in confessional terms. Rather, he stresses the political implications of this inequality.

“Shia go to Syria with Hezbollah, it is a different case and the government knows that. If they arrest Sunni Islamists going to Syria, it is for political reasons, because they fear that they would develop connections there with terrorist networks before coming back to Lebanon. They don’t treat Sunnis who went to fight with the Free Syrian Army in the same way. So it is not a confessional issue, only a political one. There are Sunni, Shia and Christian judges.”52

The discourse surrounding the alleged sectarian implications of  Islamist cases reveals the deep political roots of discrimination against Sunni Islamist and explains the sometimes despotic and rigorous rule of various actors involved in these cases. This leads to often unfair detentions and trials as well as unsolved cases of ill-treatment and torture as described above.

The silence of lawyers and Human rights NGOs concerning the cases of Islamist detainees

Many NGO reports dealing with the issue of arbitrary detention and torture never specifically mention the cases of Islamist detainees. Some reports even mention Islamist mistreatment without ever mentioning the fact that the prisoner was arrested and detained because he was considered an Islamist(CLDH 2013, Al Karama 2013-2014). These reports deliberately avoid mentioning Islamists as victims.

When asked about why such critical information is excluded from reports, Saad el-Din Chatila argues that the foundation focuses more on the rights of the detainee as a human being, and not according to his beliefs or political opinions:  

“It shouldn’t be distinguished, they should not be treated different according to [their religious and political affiliations]. It’s not our mandate to enquire about their background. Maybe they are violated in their rights because of this labelling as ‘Islamists,’ but our work does not depend on that. We are talking about the person and his most fundamental rights, and not about his beliefs or political opinions.”53

Therefore, Saad el-Din Chatila stresses the fact that not mentioning detainees’ labeling as Islamists is a way to protect their human rights. This poses the question on how to put forward the specific discrimination they are facing without stressing why they face it, and in which context they have been arrested? Saad el-Din Chatila does not believe Islamists are specifically targeted when it comes to torture or ill-treatment. Still, other accounts contradict this view, stating, rather, that “Islamists” are more targeted when it comes to arrest and subject to harsher sentences that often expose them to greater torture and ill-treatment over extended periods of time. Despite this, it still seems that there is a certain reluctance among many NGOs to look at the Islamists as a vulnerable population in the context of imprisonment and arrest.

It is important to note here that for some NGOs, Islamist cases do not appear clearly in their reports due to practical reasons rather than deliberate omission. Gaining access to information concerning Islamist cases can be sometimes more difficult than with other cases. For a very long time, the only NGO able to visit the building where Islamists were detained in Roumieh was the ICRC. Since very recently, Dar al-Fatwa was also authorized to visit the detainees and provide them with some relief. This limitation, which is specific to the Islamists’ building, not only paves the way for impunity and worse ill-treatments, but also makes it more difficult for organizations and social workers to be in contact with the detainees. “We all have better contacts with specific groups, and it is true that the Islamist groups are not the easiest to get in contact with. […] The main problem with Islamists is the access to information,”54 explains Wadih al-Asmar. Many NGOs also only work on cases when families of the detainees have contacted them specifically for help. It is possible that families of “Islamist” detainees are more easily related to Islamic organizations, such as Dar al-Fatwa, and do not find the need to contact other NGOs for help.

The other main problem faced by NGOs as well as lawyers when they take Islamists cases, is that they are often accused of supporting this population in an ideological way. “When we defend Islamists, we are accused to be pro-Islamists, when we defend someone from a political party, we are accused to support this party, when we defend someone detained for espionage for Israel, we are accused to be pro-Israel,” explains Wadih al-Asmar.55 In regards to the sit-ins organized by Al Karama Foundation after the release of the video showing Islamist detainees tortured in Roumieh, Saad el-Din Chatila critiques:

“After this video that was released a few weeks ago, Human Rights NGOs asked for sit-ins. But even at that time, people considered that it was a political issue and wanted to defend the Future Movement. Some people attacked all these NGOs and said ‘why are you defending these terrorists?’ as if people were thinking they could be submitted to torture. Some people still think that in the case of terrorism, we shouldn’t defend them. This might have effects on some NGOs who don’t want to get involved in this. Some people even attacked some NGOs like Legal Agenda, accusing them to defend the terrorists and to be related to them.”56

The lawyer Mahmoud Sablouh also reports this type of suspicion and pressure:

 “I am a defence lawyer and I have the right to defend the spy, the detained accused of terrorism, or anyone, this is my job. If the judge considers me to be like ISIS in a suit,what can you say? We don’t want to find everyone innocent. From the judges perspective, the lawyer is the terrorist because he is defending people who are oppressed.”57

These imposed accusations and critiques of NGOs and lawyers defending or dealing with the Islamists cases sometimes even leads to new trials dealing with those conflicts. The CLDH is currently in trial with Amal movement for defamation charges as they published a report denouncing torture cases perpetrated by the Amal movement. Saad el-din Chatila also faced pressures from the Lebanese Military intelligence. He was detained and questioned for 12 hours in July 2011 as he documented allegations of torture perpetrated by Military Intelligence officers.58

In fact, it is evident that there is a deep taboo surrounding Islamist and torture cases in Lebanon, as investigations  conducted for this article even seemed illicit and surrounded with an air of restriction. Some of the lawyers contacted for an interview were particularly reluctant to answer our questions. Some kept on asking the authorization of the president of the bar of Beirut to answer the questions, even after this authorization was given. Others postponed the meeting several times for different reasons without ever refusing it explicitly. Wadih al-Asmar recognizes that the lawyers working on Islamist cases often refused to give interviews. For him this reluctance is related to the judicial system in Lebanon and the fact that an arrested individual appears first as a criminal, and then as  a human being that is entitled to his or her fundamental rights.

“We don’t work on the substance, we work on the form. It is not our business if someone is guilty or not. They don’t have to detain him indefinitely, they don’t have the right to   torture him. For the rest it is not my job. But this is still difficult to assume for a Lebanese lawyer that we can’t work on the substance if the form is not assured. For some of them, it is not such a problem if the procedure is not respected.”59

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) regularly organizes trainings amongst lawyers to raise their awareness concerning torture, arbitrary detentions and the importance to denounce any procedural failure. Still, Wadih al-Asmar admits that the judicial system in Lebanon makes it very difficult for a lawyer to denounce malfunctions of judicial procedures directly. As there is no specialisation of judges, lawyers usually do not want to be at odds with a judge in a penal case that they could meet again in a commercial case, where they usually hold most of their clients.

While lawyers are therefore dependent on the judicial system and the judge, NGOs face another limitation that often hinders them on reporting the vulnerability of Islamists: their relations to and dependence on international donors. As most donors want to avoid confronting or criticizing the state, they are usually reluctant to finance NGOs dealing with sensitive issues. As Wadih al-Asmar explains:

“No donor anymore would like to finance a project that would create conflict with the state. Since 10 to 15 years, Lebanese NGOs have been formatted in their discourses because of the multiplication of NGOs capturing international funds. We used to have policy space, now the donors can refer to other organizations that are more consensual.”60


Although it is difficult to clearly establish the link between “Islamists” and high rates of arbitrary detention and torture, the security and political context surrounding the issues make Islamists a particularly vulnerable population to arbitrary arrest, detention, unfair sentences, torture and ill-treatment. Even so, arbitrary detention and acts of torture experienced by Islamist detainees led to the mobilisations of prisoners’ families, staging sit ins and demonstrations mostly located near Roumieh prison. Nevertheless, these movements failed to mobilise broader civil society itself. If this is mostly related to the fact that the detainees are Islamist or considered as such, then this also reveals the difficulty of defining the discrimination and mistreatment victims undergo in a case where the victims are considered to be criminals. The interviews conducted in this study show that many lawyers and members of civil society in Lebanon still uphold that the judicial system should not protect everyone equally from all sorts of abuses. Although some NGOs such as the CLDH decided to raise awareness on this issue, the heavy political stakes surrounding the Islamists’ case makes it extremely difficult to change mentalities. This lack of procedural justice and protection for any arrested individual is not only detrimental to the basic freedom of people within the Lebanese territory, but also can be detrimental to the efficient struggle against terrorism. 

Cited by
About the author(s):
Camille Lons:

Camille Lons holds a Master in international relations from Sciences Po Aix and is currently finishing her studies at the London School of Economics (MSc Population and Development) and at the University of Aix-Marseille (Middle eastern studies). She is a former intern at Lebanon Support, and specialises in the relationship between the Middle East and Europe, Islam and gender.