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Enigma surrounding Fatah al-Islam remains

Enigma surrounding Fatah al-Islam remains

By YASMINE RYAN in Beirut – Images taken earlier this year by Jon Stephenson

Fighting between Lebanese soldiers and Fatah al-Islam militants at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp may have ended last early September, but questions remain about the nationality and number of those arrested.

Human rights groups are also questioning whether detainees suspected of involvement with Fatah al-Islam have any real connection with the group, and are concerned many are being ill-treated.

The 106-day battle at the site north of Tripoli cost the lives of 158 Lebanese soldiers, at least 222 alleged Fatah al-Islam militants, and an unknown number of Palestinian refugees, whose camp was mostly destroyed. More than 40,000 refugees – a quarter of them without official identification papers – were displaced.

Ironically, the largest internal conflict since Lebanon's Civil War ended in 1990 united most sectarian groups in support of the army. Yet in a country that historically has been a fault line for regional tensions, the debate over who is behind Fatah al-Islam – a well-funded, international organization – has serious implications.

The military claims to have arrested more than 200 Fatah al-Islam militants, but is vague about the charges they may face. Military sources also admit that many of those captured are suspected of being "mercenaries" rather than actual Fatah al-Islam members.

Asked how many detainees suspected of links to Fatah al-Islam were being held and what their nationality was, the military tribunal that will hear their cases did not respond.

However, sources in human rights organizations and the Lebanese military say that, in addition to Lebanese and Palestinians, nationals from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen have been detained.

The Lebanese Army has said that four Russian citizens have been charged with being Fatah al-Islam members and with involvement in terrorism. The Army says one is in custody, and it is looking for the other three.

A spokesperson for Al-Karama for Human Rights, a Geneva-based organization which focuses on the Arab world, says its representatives have visited 176 detainees at Beirut's Romieh Prison on suspicion of links to Fatah al-Islam and similar organisations, including nationals from Australia and Argentina.

The Argentine Embassy would not respond to questions, but the Australian Embassy confirms that three of its citizens, all in their late thirties, were being held on "preliminary charges of terrorism-related affairs."

Mahmoud al-Hanafi, executive manager of the Palestinian Association for Human Rights, says a large proportion of those classified as Fatah al-Islam members or associates have tenuous, if any, links to the group. He claims the Lebanese military used dubious means to determine who to arrest and suggests suspect numbers have been inflated for political reasons.

Al-Hanafi says many Palestinians escaping the fighting at Nahr al-Bared were arrested at military checkpoints; some because they didn't have official identity papers. But many Palestinians – including those who arrived in Lebanon from Jordan after the 1970-71 Black September conflict – were never issued identity documents by the Lebanese government.

Al-Hanafi claims other Palestinian refugees fleeing Nahr al-Bared were also arrested because Army informers said they'd had contact with Fatah al-Islam members. But he says that, even if such claims were accurate, they would not necessarily prove anything because Fatah al-Islam members were well-integrated in parts of the community.

Al-Hanafi adds that some of those arrested for allegedly having connections with Fatah al-Islam were actually members of Palestinian political organizations like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Human Rights Watch says Palestinian refugees were arrested arbitrarily and physically abused during interrogation at the Kobbeh military base near Tripoli as well as at checkpoints, and in private houses near Nahr al-Bared.

Numerous allegations of beatings and, in some cases, torture, are being documented by human rights groups. The military rejects these claims. It says force has only been used where necessary.

The Australian Embassy in Lebanon says it has approached Lebanese authorities about allegations two of its nationals were tortured. Al-Karama for Human Rights confirmed it has approached Romieh Prison authorities about allegations of prisoner mistreatment, sparking an internal investigation by the Attorney-General.

Al-Karama's investigations suggest core members of Fatah al-Islam are being held at the Ministry of Defence complex in Yarzi. Military sources say that, while all suspects were initially interrogated either in military barracks or at the Ministry of Defence complex, no suspects linked with Fatah al-Islam are still held by the army.

The complex's most famous detainee, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, was held for ten years in an underground 2x3 meter cell. Information gathered by al-Karama suggests detainees suspected of links with Fatah al-Islam have been held and interrogated in similar conditions.

Wherever they are, the identity of the major players in Fatah al-Islam could have major implications if and when the information becomes public. The controversy over Fatah al-Islam is being used by the nation's two major political camps as a means of discrediting each other.

The Ministry of Interior, widely considered to be aligned to the pro-government camp, says that Syrian intelligence backed Fatah al-Islam in an attempt to destabilize the Lebanese government. Pro-government media and politicians have made similar claims.

However, the military has rejected suggestions Fatah al-Islam is in any way linked to Syrian intelligence. It says its intelligence shows Fatah al-Islam is part of an international terrorist network with a similar ideology, and organizational links, to Al-Qaida. Lebanese opposition politicians like former president Michel Aoun and opposition-aligned media have gone further, referring to American journalist Seymour Hersh's thesis of U.S. and Saudi Arabian government backing for Sunni extremist groups in this region.

Such claims implicate Saad Hariri; the leader of the Future Movement, a major government party. Hariri, son of assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has dual Lebanese-Saudi nationality and close ties with the Saudi regime.

Al-Karama for Human Rights fears the military tribunal that will try suspects may be vulnerable to political manipulation – a matter of particular concern as there is no right of appeal, and possible sentences include life imprisonment and the death penalty.

Fateh Azzam, regional representative of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed unease about civilians being tried by military tribunals, and questioned whether they would receive a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, detainees suspected of links to Fatah al-Islam face a long delay before their cases are heard the army has stated none of them will be released before the end of March 2008.

Omar Nashabe, editor of the legal page at Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, maintains the ad-hoc military tribunal will be better-equipped, less corrupt and generally of a higher standard than Lebanon's civilian justice system. He claims the military is less sectarian and susceptible to politicization than any civilian institution in the country.

Nashabe says the death penalty, while theoretically possible, is unlikely to be handed down to suspects associated with Fatah al-Islam. "It depends on the political circumstances, because any death warrant will actually have to be signed by the president and the prime minister."

However; many in the Lebanese military are in no mood for leniency. A colonel who fought at Nahr al-Bared, and is bitter about the deaths of his comrades there, said of the detainees, "Personally, I think they should all be hanged."


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