BEIRUT: More than a dozen Muslim scholars protested Sunday outside Lebanon’s Defense Ministry and called for the release of a Sunni preacher who was detained last week for alleged links to groups behind recent car bombings in the country. Speaking on behalf of the Muslim scholars, Sheikh Khaled al-Arfe said the military had arrested Omar Atrash on false accusations and that the preacher had merely been helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Atrash, who is from the Bekaa Valley, is accused by Army Intelligence of smuggling terrorists, rigged cars and belts of explosives – which are believed to have been used in several attacks – through the border town of Arsal to Beirut.
“Should helping Syrian refugees require punishment? Is it a crime to help people?” the sheikh said, addressing fellow scholars from north Lebanon’s Dar al-Fatwa.
“The other party [Hezbollah] announced it was fighting in Syria and vowed to send more fighters,” he said. “We say this to the Defense Ministry: We won’t allow you to have double standards.”
“Everyone should be treated fairly, why are the arrests and killings only targeting the Sunnis? We don’t trust the Lebanese Army investigations.”
Responding to reports that Atrash had confessed to the accusations after being tortured, Arfe said these were “not real confessions.”
The scholars appealed to the president and caretaker prime minister to “take a serious stance” with regard to the ongoing detentions.
“Up until now we have been able to contain the youth but don’t let us lose the ability to do so,” he said. “Oppression leads to chaos and everyone will regret it later.”
The Army deployed heavily in the Baabda town of Yarze ahead of the protest to prevent the group from reaching the ministry.
The sheikhs left the sit-in once they were given a Monday appointment to meet with the head of Army Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Edmond Fadel.
This article was amended on Tuesday, January 28 2014
This article was ammended on Jan. 28, 2014.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 27, 2014, on page 3.