BEIRUT: Representative of the families of Lebanese pilgrims being held hostage in Syria called the arrest of three of their relatives “politically motivated” Sunday, as the ISF rejected reports the detained were being physically abused.
The three suspects, identified as two members of the Saleh family and one from the Zoughaib clan, were interrogated over the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots and referred to the general prosecutor in Mount Lebanon Saturday, judicial sources said on condition of anonymity.
Sheikh Abbas Zoughaib, tasked by the Higher Islamic Shiite Council with following up on the kidnapping of the Lebanese pilgrims, told The Daily Star Sunday that the arrest of the three suspects “was clearly politically motivated,” and that the ISF had “crossed a red line” by targeting the “dignity” of the families of the hostages.
“We will continue protesting and speaking out,” he added. “We are concerned with maintaining stability in Lebanon, so we will stay put.”
He said that in spite of the reports, there was no direct link between the kidnapping of the Turkish pilots and that of the pilgrims in Syria, and that the former was not an act aimed at avenging the delay in releasing the pilgrims. He also said that he was willing to help secure the release of the Turkish pilots.
“We reject the kidnapping. We want dialogue, open communication and understanding,” he said.
“Our demand is not the release of those arrested, but for the legal justification behind their detention,” Zoughaib said, emphasizing that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel had confirmed that they had not been charged.
Charbel has also reassured the families that those arrested would be released if innocent, he said.
The suspects are relatives of Jamil Saleh and Abbas Shoueib, two of the nine Lebanese hostages being held in neighboring Syria by a rebel group. Authorities are currently searching for Ali Jamil Saleh, the son of Jamil Saleh, who is suspected of being the mastermind behind the kidnapping.
In May of last year, a Syrian rebel group calling itself the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade abducted 11 Lebanese Shiites in Aleppo’s Azaz province who were on their way back from a pilgrimage to Iran. Two of the hostages were later released.
Police interrogated five individuals over the kidnapping of the Turkish nationals, the sources said, adding that two were later released.
On Aug. 9, Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were kidnapped at gunpoint on their way to a Beirut hotel.
They were forced out of a shuttle bus at the Cocodi Bridge, less than a kilometer away from Rafik Hariri International Airport.
Shortly after the abduction, a group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda or “Visitors to Imam Ali al-Reda” claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the two Turks and demanded the release of the nine Lebanese in Syria in exchange.
The relatives of the pilgrims, who deny involvement in the abduction of Akpinar and Agca, have urged Turkey to help release their loved ones held captive in Syria.
They have repeatedly held sit-ins targeting Turkish interests in the country, including Ankara’s cultural center and the offices of Turkish Airlines in Beirut, and had recently threatened to kidnap the country’s nationals in Beirut.
The relatives of the three detained suspects held a sit-in over the weekend near the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces in Ashrafieh to protest their detention, which they said was arbitrary.
Zoughaib said at the sit-in that the ISF Information Branch was dealing with the hostage case in a manner similar to the car bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs last Thursday. Both, he said, were treated as incidents aiming at dragging Lebanon into matters outside its interests.
During the protest, Daniel Shoueib, brother of one of the hostages Abbas Shoueib, said the ISF Information Branch was giving the media false reports and, with no real basis, was blaming the relatives for the abduction of the Turkish nationals.
He added that the sit-in aimed to protest “the arbitrary arrests of our relatives made by the Information Branch through false accusations that they were behind the abduction of the Turkish pilots.”
The Internal Security Forces released a statement saying the families of the detained three could visit them in Roumieh Prison at any time, provided the visit was approved by the Mount Lebanon public prosecutor.
It also denied reports that one of the three detained had been subject to physical abuse during the interrogations, sustaining severe injuries, and that a physician at Roumieh Prison had refused to treat him.
“The General Directorate assures that there is no truth to those rumors and that the detainees are in good condition and have not been harmed,” the statement said.
Turkey sought the assistance of Hezbollah over the case of the kidnapped pilots last week, during a meeting between Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz and Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad.