(Beirut) – Lebanese judicial authorities failed to investigate serious torture allegations made by Hassan al-Dika prior to his death in custody, Human Rights Watch said today, on the two-year anniversary of the passage of an anti-torture law.
Internal Security Forces (ISF) officers arrested al-Dika, 44, on November 1, 2018 on drug-related charges. Al-Dika alleged that ISF officers subjected him to repeated beatings and electric shocks, suspended him in stress positions, and forced him to confess, including in notes he allegedly smuggled out of prison. Prison authorities transferred him to a hospital on April 2, 2019 due to his deteriorating health, which his family said resulted from torture in ISF detention. He died in the hospital on May 11.
“The prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hassan al-Dika’s allegations underscores serious failings in how Lebanon’s judiciary is handling torture complaints,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The procedures in the anti-torture law are intended to safeguard the evidence and provide accountability for the crime of torture. Yet two years on, we have yet another case in which authorities failed to follow the law.”
On July 31, in response to a Human Rights Watch letter inquiring about the investigation into al-Dika’s death and torture complaints, Justice Minister Albert Serhan sent Human Rights Watch a copy of the investigation results compiled by the acting cassation prosecutor following al-Dika’s death.
The report stated that the ISF’s Central Criminal Investigations Department conducted the investigation, although the anti-torture law prohibits security agencies from carrying out torture investigations. An investigation by the ISF into actions committed by its own officers is neither independent nor impartial, Human Rights Watch said.
Toufic al-Dika, Hassan al-Dika’s father, who was also acting as his lawyer, filed a complaint with the public prosecutor on November 21, 2018 alleging that his son had been tortured. Instead of referring the complaint to an investigative judge within 48 hours as required under the anti-torture law, the public prosecutor sent it to the ISF, whose officers allegedly committed the torture.
The public prosecutor also did not appoint a forensic medical examiner within 48 hours of receiving the complaint on November 21 as the law requires. Ghassan Moukheiber, a former member of parliament and architect of the anti-torture law, told Human Rights Watch that he met with the public prosecutor in November after Hassan al-Dika’s father submitted the torture complaint to her, urged her to appoint a doctor to examine al-Dika, and that she refused. When he cited the anti-torture law, Moukheiber said, the public prosecutor told him that “she had not seen the law.” On May 12, the investigative judge who issued al-Dika’s arrest warrant also said that that the public prosecutor had not agreed to appoint a forensic doctor to examine al-Dika. The public prosecutor claimed in response that she had authorized al-Dika’s transfer to the hospital and ordered a medical committee to examine al-Dika, but she did so many months after the torture complaint.
On November 23, another public prosecutor authorized Toufic al-Dika to appoint a medical examiner “at his own expense.” Al-Dika’s family appointed a physician and psychiatrist to examine him. Both reported that al-Dika was suffering from serious physical and psychological trauma as a result of abuse. The authorities subsequently claimed that the physician had written a false report, but the psychiatrist’s findings alone should have prompted the authorities to investigate the torture allegations. Despite the psychiatrist’s compelling medical findings, the public prosecution still did not refer the complaint to the judiciary as mandated by law.
While the acting cassation prosecutor’s investigation report, compiled on July 27, after al-Dika’s death, states that a sergeant and nurse examined him upon his transfer to pretrial detention at the Baabda Justice Palace on November 9, as did a physician from the ISF on November 19 who found a number of contusions on al-Dika’s shoulders and right arm, government statements immediately after al-Dika’s death do not reference those medical examinations. While an ISF statement on May 12 disputes the findings of the physician appointed by al-Dika’s family, it does not indicate that other examinations were conducted.
On December 10, Toufic al-Dika filed another torture complaint directly with the investigative judge, enclosing both reports from the physician and psychiatrist he appointed. Both Toufic al-Dika and Moukheiber told Human Rights Watch that the clerk at the judge’s office initially refused to register the complaint. They also alleged that when the investigative judge finally registered the complaint on February 27, he shared details of the complaint with ISF officers.
Subsequently, Toufic al-Dika told Human Rights Watch that he received threats to his life that he deemed serious, compelling him to withdraw both complaints on March 20. The anti-torture law requires the authorities to ensure the protection of the person filing the complaint from ill-treatment and intimidation.
On January 25, three specialized United Nations experts sent a letter to the Lebanese government expressing grave concern about the alleged arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment of al-Dika.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern on May 14, following Hassan al-Dika’s death, about the judiciary’s failure to investigate al-Dika’s original allegations of torture, and called for a “thorough, effective, and independent investigation” into his death.
Human Rights Watch also found that the ISF and the public prosecution committed serious due process violations, notably by arresting al-Dika outside the permissible hours and apparently falsifying the date of al-Dika’s arrest.
Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon. However, authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and justice for torture in detention remains elusive. Ziad Itani, a well-known actor exonerated of spying for Israel, has described in detail his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017. Despite filing a lawsuit against the individuals involved in his torture in November 2018, there has been little movement on his case.
As a party to the Convention against Torture, Lebanon is required to take effective measures to prevent torture, investigate credible allegations of torture, and hold accountable anyone found guilty of committing torture with appropriate penalties that take into account the gravity of the crime.
Lebanon should allocate a sufficient budget for the National Preventative Mechanism against Torture and accept the pending request of the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit Lebanon, submitted on February 13, 2017.
“There is absolutely no excuse when prosecutors and judges continue to ignore the provisions of the anti-torture law,” Fakih said. “Lebanon needs to step up its efforts to combat torture and ensure that anyone found responsible for misconduct in Hassan al-Dika’s case is held accountable.”
Due Process Violations During Hassan al-Dika’s Arrest
Toufic al-Dika told Human Rights Watch that at around 9:30 p.m. on November 1, 2018 more than 50 armed and uniformed ISF officers stormed the building where he and his son Hassan lived in separate apartments, and arrested his son, Hassan al-Dika, without presenting an arrest warrant, even when Toufic asked them to do so.
The father said that he did not hear from his son until two days later when Hassan was allowed to make a brief phone call. He was not allowed to see his family or a lawyer until the ISF transferred him to the Baabda Justice Palace pretrial detention facility on November 9. The authorities subsequently transferred him to Roumieh Prison and then to Aley Prison.
Under Lebanese law, police are not allowed to enter a suspect’s home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Unless a suspect is discovered in the act of committing a crime, police also cannot detain him without the public prosecutor’s prior approval. Article 47 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure also guarantees detained suspects the right to contact a person of their choosing, to meet with a lawyer, and to request a medical examination as soon as they are arrested. Arresting officers must inform detained suspects of these rights promptly upon arrest.
Pre-charge detention must not exceed 48 hours and can be renewed once for another 48 hours with the public prosecutor’s consent. In the investigation report that the Ministry of Justice sent to Human Rights Watch, the public prosecution claimed that the ISF arrested al-Dika on November 3, instead of November 1, and that the investigation with him concluded on November 5, after which the ISF referred his case to the public prosecution. ISF records compiled at the time of al-Dika’s arrest and interrogation, which Toufic shared with Human Rights Watch, indicate that al-Dika was arrested on November 1, not November 3.
The ISF stated that al-Dika remained at the ISF Information Branch until November 9 due to the lack of vacant pretrial detention places at the Baabda Justice Palace.
Officers found to have breached rules regarding the detention of a suspect are criminally liable for unlawful detention. The judiciary should ensure that an independent investigation is conducted into the allegations, and hold the responsible officers to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Hassan al-Dika’s Account of Torture
Human Rights Watch saw notes that Toufic al-Dika alleges his son Hassan al-Dika wrote during his pretrial detention at the Baabda Justice Palace, and smuggled out on cigarette cartons. In the notes, Hassan al-Dika described his ordeal at the ISF’s Information Branch. This account is consistent with reporting about Hassan’s case prior to his death.
He wrote that upon his arrest on the evening of Thursday, November 1, he was taken to a police building in the neighborhood of Ain El-Remmeneh, where he was kept overnight. The next morning, he was taken to the Information Branch, where officers handcuffed and blindfolded him, and forced him to remove his clothes. He stated that officers made him wait in a dark room “smaller than a toilet” for 15 minutes and then took him to a room where officers questioned him about his alleged drug smuggling. When al-Dika denied the accusations, he wrote, five officers beat him for two hours on his head, face, and stomach.
After the beating, al-Dika wrote, officers interrogated him about his customs clearance company and his employees, and asked that he provide the requested information. He said he was then taken to a cell and left alone for two hours. Officers then entered the room and started questioning him about his alleged crime again. When he answered truthfully, he wrote, one of the officers called him a liar and officers beat him, applied electric shocks, and subjected him to the “falaka,” a form of torture that entails beating on the soles of the feet.
Al-Dika wrote that a few hours later, officers took him for interrogation again, where the torture was “on another level.” Officers beat him, including on his feet, and put him in the farrouj position, suspending him with his hands tied from an iron bar passed under his knees. Al-Dika wrote that he fainted an hour later, and when he regained consciousness, an officer told him, “Do you want to talk, or do you want to die?”
Al-Dika wrote that after that, he agreed to everything. “If they asked me whether I had killed the prophet, I would have said yes,” al-Dika wrote.