Lebanese recount torture in prison by Israeli allies

Beatings, hanging by wrists described by liberated captives

May 27, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT — BEIRUT-By the time Tayssir Sha'aban became a free man this week, the cigarette burns had faded from his wrists, and the pain of being kicked, gagged and stepped on had eased. But the memory of something worse that happened to him at Khiam Prison, something he refuses to talk about, still brings a look of fresh hurt to his eyes.

"It's a secret," he says.

Sha'aban, 42, was among the longest-serving of 144 detainees to be released Tuesday when hundreds of villagers joined Hezbollah guerrillas in freeing inmates from the infamous prison operated by the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army.

Mujib Turmuss, 28, another longtime prisoner, awoke that morning to the sound of gunfire and thought he was going to be killed. But the shots turned out to have been fired by prison guards trying to scare off approaching villagers emboldened by the collapse of the SLA the day before and the sudden, hasty withdrawal of Israeli tanks and troops.

Later, the guards fled, leaving behind guns and keys, and the villagers broke through the doors and freed the 141 men and three women inside.

Now Khiam Prison, about five miles from the northern Israeli border, has become a must-see stop for Lebanese from all over the country who, after a long absence, are revisiting and returning to a zone occupied by Israel since 1978 until this week. Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, visited Thursday and pledged to turn it into a site of national pilgrimage.

Prisoners agree that the worst abuses at the prison occurred before 1995, when, under pressure from the Red Cross, the SLA made substantial improvements in the treatment of prisoners.

But with the accounts of newly released detainees spilling out on top of the wealth of information previously gathered by human rights groups, Khiam stands to become a harsh symbol of the Israeli occupation and the behavior of its proxy army, the SLA.

In early 1986, Sha'aban was 28 and serving in a Syrian-led arm of the faction-ridden Lebanese Army when he returned on a three-day leave to his home in Beit Yahoun. The village was part of the occupation zone established by Israel the year before when it withdrew most of the forces that had invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Arrested by SLA troops after guerrilla activity in the area, Sha'aban refused to cooperate and balked at working with the Israelis, he said. Without a formal trial or access to a lawyer, he was held for 14 years.

"Many weren't given a reason for their arrest," Mohammed Safa, general secretary of an organization called the Follow-up Committee for the Support of Lebanese Detainees in Israeli prisons, says. The absence of any due process is one of the key findings of a report in January 2000 on Khiam by the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

The first six months of interrogation brought the grimmest experience of his long incarceration, Sha'aban said in an interview after his release.

Blindfolded, his wrists tied to a pole for three days, he was forced to stand on one foot, then when he tired, forced to stand on the other.

He was beaten with metal rods, burned with cigarettes, choked with electrical cord to the point of gagging, kicked and walked on, he said. For six months, he was kept alone in a cell too small lie down in. Later, he was put in a cell with five other prisoners. That cell was so small no more than two or three could sleep at a time. Cellmates were frequently rotated and questioned about each other.

Sha'aban said that on at least one occasion, a guard urinated on the back of his neck and into his eyes and mouth.

After a month of questioning, the SLA turned him over to the Israelis for interrogation sessions that lasted from about 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Unlike the SLA, he said, "they were very quiet and polite," speaking in classical Arabic, but warned him that if he didn't cooperate, "we will send you [back] to the dogs," referring to the SLA.

The Israelis asked what he knew about the leaders of the Hezbollah and Amal militias, taking notes on a portable computer.

After five months, he was warned by the SLA that if he didn't help them, his mother and sisters would be expelled from their village. Their house was destroyed in May 1987, and his family was forced to move to a family-owned farm in the village of Touline.

Mujib Turmuss, another newly released prisoner, gave a very similar account of the first months of interrogation during his nearly 11 years of detention.

He also was arrested by the SLA, but in his case, the reason was clearer. He was a fighter for Hezbollah. Asked what he did for the guerrilla group, he replied: ""Everything.," including following and gathering intelligence on Israelis. Asked if he engaged in bombings and ambushes, he joked that he had forgotten and refused to answer.

Detained on Aug. 5, 1989, at age 17, he was kept in darkness for the first two months, he said, and was in solitary confinement for four months in the same type of tiny cell that Sha'aban described. He was hit; he was hung by the wrists from a pole.

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