Syrian Defector in Lebanon Faces Uncertain Fate

A 30-year-old Syrian army defector in Lebanon faces possible torture and even death after being sentenced Monday by a Lebanese military tribunal to two months’ imprisonment and a 100,000LL ($67) fine followed by deportation, for the crime of entering the country illegally.

Muhammad Tlas, a former officer from Al-Rastan who had joined the rebel Free Syrian Army, was arrested on 6 December 2012, while taking an injured comrade to a Lebanese hospital, according to Nabil al-Halabi, laywer and executive director of the Lebanese Foundation for Democracy and Human rights (“Life”), who publicized Tlas’ case in a press release Tuesday.

When the military tribunal delivered its sentence Monday, preparations were quickly made to deport Tlas on the grounds that his two month detention had already been served, said Halabi. “He is now being kept in a General Security prison in the Beqaa Valley,” he told NOW. General Security could not be reached for comment.

In spite of these steps, the Lebanese government has hinted it may not enforce the deportation order. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Wednesday that though he had “not examined this case […] such extraditions are generally not carried out.” And on Thursday, President Michel Suleiman said on Twitter that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no Syrians would be deported to Syria.

Indeed, according to Marie Daunay, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), the organization that assigned a lawyer to Tlas’ case, he has not yet been deported and probably will not be.

“It seems to have been the policy of the Lebanese authorities in the past few months not to implement deportation orders for Syrians, due to the policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict,” she said.

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the Middle East and North Africa, also said that while Tlas’ fate remains uncertain, “most deportation orders in Lebanon against Syrians are not carried out. The last one we are aware of was…in August.” On that occasion, Lebanon deported 14 Syrians – some of them believed to be opposition activists – earning criticism from HRW and a number of foreign embassies.

Regardless, Daunay condemned the decision to sentence Tlas to any punishment in the first place. “The decision…made by the military tribunal is in contravention of Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture. This violation happened even though this point was raised in court by the defense lawyer.” Article 3 of the Convention, to which Lebanon is a party, states that “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

Moreover, Daunay criticized the continued detention of Tlas, in spite of Charbel’s and Suleiman’s statements. “He is still pending deportation, even though he should already have been released.”

Houry agreed, that “From [HRW’s] end, the first key principle here is no deportations for anyone fearing persecution or torture in Syria. That obviously includes someone who defected or decided not to do his military service. That’s a clear obligation; these deportations cannot take place.

“The second key principle is no detention of any Syrian, or person from Syria such as a Palestinian refugee, merely for being in the country illegally.”

Indeed, Halabi said that, in the majority of cases, defecting Syrian officers and refugees alike had no choice but to enter Lebanon illegally.

“Whenever there is conflict in some area, it is impossible for rebels to pass through checkpoints and passport control; they have to escape and take illegal ways to a safe place. One cannot condemn refugees as illegal immigrants.”

“The Turkish and Jordanian governments acknowledge the impossibility of refugees passing through legal check points, and they establish refugee camps in many places. Yet the Lebanese government is still following and arresting refugees for illegal entry. This is unacceptable, on a legal and humanitarian level.”

Moreover, “the Syrian embassy stopped renewing passports, so now we have a situation where refugees cannot go back to Syria, don’t have the freedom of mobility in Lebanon and cannot travel with expired passports. Something has to be done.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.