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Human rights groups rap Lebanon over reports of torture in detention centers

BEIRUT: A coalition of human rights watchdogs has criticized Lebanon over claims of torture in the country's detention centers and has demanded that a report on the issue, due seven years ago, is completed and handed to the United Nations. Lebanon signed up to a UN convention against torture in 2000 but has failed to submit a report on what it is doing to combat the issue that was due a year later. Human Rights Watch says that "torture and ill treatment remain a serious problem in Lebanese detention facilities."

"It is not enough to sign conventions," the coalition of human rights groups said in a statement. "The government needs to comply with them."

The term torture covers a wide range of abuses, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch told The Daily Star. "We have heard of a couple of cases where people were handcuffed with metal cuffs and then an electric current was put on the handcuffs," he said.

He warned that abuse of prisoners in Lebanon was a "serious" issue that wasn't being taken seriously by authorities. "There is an underlying problem of torture in Lebanon," he said.  

The groups say they have gathered reports from former detainees that say they were beaten and abused by Lebanese officials during their detention. They name the intelligence branches of the army, the Internal Security Force and the drug repression bureau as the perpetrators of the abuse.

The groups say that "the judiciary rarely investigates torture claims" in Lebanon and that justice for victims remains "elusive." While acknowledging that the government has taken some steps, such as allowing Red Cross officers access to all detention facilities, the groups says that it has "failed to address the broader issues of lack of investigations and impunity for violations committed against detainees."

"The steps taken to date have been insufficient and very limited," the groups said. "It's not enough to train officers in human rights standards; those who commit torture should pay for their crimes."

During the Nahr al-Bared crisis in the summer of 2007, the number of reports of torture received by the groups increased dramatically. More than 200 people said the Lebanese Army had beaten or tortured them in an effort to extract information or confessions from them.

If true, the reports would put Lebanon in violation of the UN convention against torture which it signed in 2000. Under the rules of the convention Lebanon is required to "ensure that's its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed."

Physical torture is illegal under Lebanese as well as international law. Article 401 of the Penal code stipulates that anyone who "severely beats someone with the intention of obtaining a confession about a crime or information will be imprisoned from three months to three years."

But the groups warn that this law is never enforced, claiming that only one person has been convicted of torture in the past two years, and even then the culprit received a sentence of only 15 days in jail and a $200 fine. The law also falls short of outlawing non-physical torture, which human rights campaigners say can be just as damaging, and should be rewritten, the groups say.

They said the government should submit the report to UN "urgently" and suggested that the law prohibiting physical torture is updated and enforced more zealously.

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