The Israeli army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon has enabled the Lebanese to unveil the horrors they experienced under occupation. Earlier this month, the survivors of these atrocities led public demonstrations to draw international attention to their suffering.
But Americans may never learn how the Israeli-financed, trained and equipped Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) carried out these crimes with the full complicity and participation of Israeli agencies. Now it seems these criminals have become fugitives from justice as they seek protection through the Israeli government, which is currently seeking safe havens for them in Europe and the United States.
Since Israel's illegal occupation began in 1978, the newly formed SLA established a network of detention and interrogation centers manned by Maronite Christians who were given training and financial support from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli General Security Services (GSS).
One of the most notorious of these centers was the Khiam Detention Center where Lebanese men, women and teenage children were imprisoned without a trial. All were routinely maltreated and tortured, without regard to age or gender.
Most of the inmate cells were less than one square meter and many did not include beds. The inmates had to sleep in groups, one group after another and often sharing one blanket between them. When the Center opened each detainee was given to eat one tomato every two days; later on, three of them shared one potato, an egg or five olives.
The medical records left at the center and accounts of survivors indicate that a gruesome variety of torture techniques were practiced on prison inmates. Of these, the most notorious was the iron-pole, where they were left hanging naked and handcuffed after being beaten and doused with hot and cold water. Other torture methods employed included electric shocks to their genitals, burning their body parts with cigarettes, forced extraction of their teeth, nails and hair, amputations of their fingers and limbs and sleep deprivation. Still more humiliating practices included urinating in the mouths of prisoners, denying the use of toilet facilities and forcing detainees to live in their own fecal excretions. Even worse, some were repeatedly raped throughout their imprisonment.
Cosette Ibrahim, a Maronite Christian and a journalism student was abducted from her home near the prison by the SLA. On her first day, she was handcuffed and interrogated head-covered with a hood for five hours, while two men took turns to kick and hit her. At the same time they kept on repeating, "We are not going to tell you what it is; but you have something to tell us and you know what it is" - thus trying to break her down, pry into her mind and extract some sort of confession. She also recalled that women at KDC were routinely humiliated and repeatedly raped.
Another female, Soha Bechara, 21, was detained at this Center for 10 years for allegedly attempting to kill Antoine Lahad, an SLA leader. She was physically tortured and kept in solitary confinement in a tiny. Her mother was then also apprehended and brought into the prison and tortured in her presence - another common practice to create fear and extract confession. Only after these inhumane treatments were publicized and worldwide protests took place was she released.
Male inmates were also subjected to rape. Mustafa Dirani, detained in 1994, was repeatedly raped by his jailers. He was kept totally naked for seven consecutive months, deprived of sleep, beaten regularly and forced to take laxatives and wear diapers.
Another male detainee, Soleiman Ramadan was stripped naked except for his shorts and a bag was constantly lodged over his head. He was so severely beaten that it resulted in amputation of his leg. He was confined to a miniscule cell for 73 days and starved until forced to eat the dead skin around his tortured fingernails. His excretion was left under him until his whole body was covered with a dry, thick fecal layer.
The detention at KDC was deliberately made severe to give it a fearsome reputation to keep in check expressions of anti-Israeli sentiments among the Lebanese population. This was fortified by a visible omnipotence of Israeli personnel. There is overwhelming evidence that many Israeli officers not only encouraged but also participated with interrogators in torturing inmates. And in most cases the Israeli soldiers were worse in their treatment than their SLA counterparts.
The inmates were also held as hostages to be exchanged for Israeli soldiers. This practice still goes on in Israel. Many abducted individuals are held in secret places as bargaining chips for future negotiations. These detainees are often denied access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. This practice is so common that on repeated appeals by organizations within Israel the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that it was illegal to hold such detainees. But all such rulings do not have any appreciable effect on the actual policies adopted by the Israeli government.
Strangely the KDC was located only a few meters away from a UN observation post. Thus UN personnel witnessed much of what was going on inside the prison. Their excuse for not intervening was that their mandate was limited, and as 'observers' they did not have permission or tools to interfere. Finally, in 1999, a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention exposed the brutality that was going on under direct Israeli supervision. This UN group also confirmed that SLA was financed and acted under the orders of Israelis. But much before this, a 1992 Amnesty International report provided a detailed account of the happenings at KDC.
The Israeli administration has consistently denied any involvement, maintaining that KDC was wholly under the SLA control. It was only after human rights advocates within Israel obliged it to finally admit in a 1999 Supreme Court proceeding that the Israel defense ministry was involved. Then Brigadier Dan Halutz, in a signed and sworn affidavit, said, "the state of Israel assists the SLA, among other ways through financing, weapons and maintenance." He admitted "the IDF also assisted the SLA by training its soldiers, and training even took place in bases in Israel." He also said that GSS personnel held regular meetings several times annually with the SLA interrogators.
The nearby residents of KDC forced open its gates in May 2000 after the Israeli retreat from Southern Lebanon. During the 15 years since it was established, some 8,500 detainees had passed through these gates. At their release, most survivors were described as looking like cadaverous. Many eventually died and some are still hospitalized or bedridden from the immense physical and psychological torture.
Amnesty International in an open letter issued on May 30, 2000 described that crimes committed at KDC were the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Amnesty termed these as 'war crimes' stating that the responsibility for their commission lay both with the SLA and the state of Israel which was fully accountable for the arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses committed.
However the Israeli crime perpetrators remain free in Israel. The major responsibility must go to Yossi Peled who commanded the IDF in Southern Lebanon from 1986 to 1991. He was there only a year after KDC was established and was quartermaster for SLA, arranging its financial, material and training needs. In a BBC correspondence program he freely admitted that Israeli officers visited the center and that it would be difficult for them to say that they were not involved in any way.
While the Israeli government is now protecting and seeking shelters for its war criminals, the Lebanese government has for now indicted 11 former SLA officials who worked, at the KDC. They are all accused of torturing and killing the detainees and will be tried in absentia.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese are calling on their government to preserve the detention center to serve as a living testimony to the horrors committed on them by Israelis.
Dr. Siraj Mufti currently serves as Islamic consultant to the Correctional Corporation of America in Arizona and is a retired chaplain from the U.S. Department of Justice. Previously, he was a research professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.