TORTURED INMATES ARE "CHIPS TO ISRAEL"
Robert Fisk, The Independent, July 19, 1999
KHANJAR SHAEB was studying at the Beirut Baptist School when he was seized by Israel's surrogate South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia in 1996. He is still in their notorious Khiam prison in southern Lebanon. Now 19, he has passed two birthdays in the old French mandate fort where Israel keeps its "bargaining chips" -- read hostages -- for its captured soldiers and airmen in Lebanon. After he dug a hole in the wall of the prison in a vain escape attempt, offering to take on his back a crippled prisoner who had his leg amputated in the jail because of gangrene, Khanjar Shaeb was recaptured and -- according to newly released inmates -- beaten. He spent a week in Marjayoun hospital inside the Israeli occupation zone.
Shaeb is only one of the Khiam prisoners who are victims of a new regime of violence and torture at the jail, which even SLA men fear. The Lebanese government has complained to the UN about six detainees who were allegedly assaulted with hammers by SLA guards this month when they planned a hunger strike. Hassan Seayad, 70 -- the "grandfather of Khiam," according to the one-legged prisoner Sulieman Ramadan -- was released a few days ago with appalling stories of being chained and hung by his arms from a roof-beam. Ramadan has been in Khiam without trial for 14 years. His 70-year-old wife remains a prisoner.
Israeli courts are now debating whether Israel actually controls the Khiam jail, which lies inside its occupation zone, arguing whether the Israeli army -- which arms, clothes, trains and pays the SLA - actually runs the jail.
Israeli officials have stated that the inmates are "bargaining chips" for missing Israelis and there will be no trials. While some of the prisoners have been captured while attacking Israeli occupation troops - which is not a crime under international law -- others are clearly no more than kidnap victims. Two days after Khanjar Shaeb was arrested, the SLA detained the children of two of his neighbours and his two cousins.
Torture has long been a feature of Khiam. Its "electrical room", where electrodes were applied to the fingers and penises of prisoners under interrogation since 1985, has been described by many former inmates. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been refused access to the jail. Old Hassan Seayad emerged to tell how he was suspended from a pole from a ceiling bar so that his arms almost broke. "My armpits hurt so much and I kept trying to reach the ground. I had to answer back and every time I did, I was beaten," he said. He then kept his mouth shut for fear that his wife would be tortured.
Sohad Shaeb tells the story of her son's arrest with painful irony -- the family home is in Khiam village, only a few hundred metres from the prison that still carries the shell holes of the Allied Australian troops who liberated Lebanon from the Vichy French in 1941. "We had gone to Beirut in 1996 to see my brother off to Germany," Sohad Shaeb said yesterday. "On 1 September 1996 I telephoned my parents, who were looking after Khanjar, to tell him to follow us. When he didn't turn up, I called them and they said that the SLA had taken him that morning. We found out later that he had been taken to Israel.
"I returned to Khiam and a week later, as I was sitting on the rooftop of our home, I saw an SLA convoy speeding past. I felt Khanjar was in one of the cars -- I felt that my heart jumped out and followed the cars. And when I approached one of the guards, whom I knew, and said Khanjar had arrived at the jail, he asked, "How did you know he was here?" I didn't see him until the Red Cross arranged for a visit."
Two weeks later, the SLA arrested Sohad Shaeb and placed her in solitary confinement in the same prison. The Israelis rarely disclose why their proxy militia have arrested men or women in southern Lebanon -- a difficult task since many have been arrested because of the politics of their family. Sohad Shaeb says she suspects her son was detained because his step-brother is a Beirut government bodyguard for Nabi Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and leader of the anti-Israeli Amal militia. She herself was accused under interrogation of transporting weapons. "But I said to them, "How could I move weapons in the family car -- especially when you SLA people search the car at every checkpoint?" They kept insulting me until I shouted at them to be polite." She was released without explanation on 3 October 1996.
Khanjar Shaeb remains the youngest prisoner in Khiam and -- by his mother's account -- a tough one. Khanjar means "knife". "When I first saw him, I cried and called him "my darling" and he said that if I cried he would ask the guards to take him away. He said, "I promise you I have done nothing wrong. You must be strong. I'm not afraid because I haven't done anything wrong." The International Red Cross take Khanjar books, and in a letter to him I wrote to say he must ask for a dictionary and English books to continue his education. Prisoners who've been released say he has taught them English -- he's very, very intelligent."
At least 170 Lebanese remain in Israeli prisons -- 128 in Khiam and 42 in Israel, transferred across the border against international law. Until the creation of the Association for Lebanese Detainees -- originally organised by a Lebanese who had spent years in Ashkelon prison for gun-running into the occupied West Bank - the Lebanese government ignored their prisoners in Israeli hands. Last week, they received the support of the Lebanese Prime Minister and the country's former foreign minister, Fares Boueiz, who is making international appeals for their release.
The SLA has problems of its own. Faced with an apparently imminent Israeli military retreat from southern Lebanon, it is aware that dozens of SLA men who handed themselves over to the Lebanese authorities after the Israelis withdrew from the city of Jezzine last month were imprisoned by the Beirut government and accused of "collaboration with the enemy." So fearful was one of the SLA officers there of his Israeli sponsors that when journalists asked to enter Jezzine before the Israeli retreat, he replied: "I'd help you [but] they'll put me in Khiam."
In Damascus, meanwhile, the justice minister, Hussein Hassoun, has announced the impending release of -- according to the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin - "tens of thousands of prisoners", including those guilty of military desertion, smuggling and other economic crimes. Amnesty has long called for the release of "political prisoners" by Syria. The releases were granted under an amnesty celebrating President Hafez el-Assad's new term of office.