ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Some of the seven Lebanese Islamist detainees released Tuesday blasted judicial authorities for holding them for several years without trial.
The detainees, who were released on bail, were arrested for alleged ties with the Al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group which fought a deadly battle against the Lebanese Army in the summer of 2007 in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
Fourteen men were originally scheduled for release Tuesday but some foreigners among them were referred to the General Security for further processing, after which they will be released. Some other Lebanese due to be released Tuesday are also facing other, unrelated charges.
Mohammad Khaled was the first to be released.
“I am happy, but disappointed at the same time,” he told reporters. “Who will compensate me for the five years and one month [in prison without trial]? The investigations should have taken only one week.”
Khaled said he had been studying medicine in Russia before he was sent to prison. Having returned to Lebanon, Khaled said he presented himself to authorities when he discovered he was wanted for questioning.
“I went by myself for investigation [in Lebanon] because I expected there to be justice in Lebanon ... but I was only released now.”
Khaled, 32, said he would continue his studies outside Lebanon. “I will continue my life outside Lebanon, I will abandon this passport which I am not honored to carry,” he said, as he flashed his Lebanese passport.
The seven have been released on bail, which was set at LL500,000 each. The fees were paid by Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office.
Relatives, many of whom had been waiting for hours, cheered as the seven exited the prison’s gates, rushing to embrace their loved ones.
Many relatives of the approximately 180 Islamist inmates arrested after the 2007 clashes have been protesting across the country, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli, demanding that the government speed up legal procedures as most of the detainees have yet to face trial.
President Michel Sleiman expressed relief Tuesday over the judiciary’s recent efforts to hasten the processing of the cases of those released.
The president also expressed hope that the process would continue, thereby closing the cases of the remaining Islamist detainees, and helping to ease prison overcrowding.
Another of those released Tuesday, Jalal Metlej said that he was arrested over a nearly 90-second telephone conversation with his friend and neighbor in Tripoli.
“It turned out later that this person has links to Fatah al-Islam,” he said. “I was arrested for five years and one month because of a phone call lasting one minute and 27 seconds: I had no trial and had only a preliminary investigation ... Had I been a collaborator [with Israel], I would have been released within two months or one year.”
Relatives of Islamist detainees were angered by the release of Fayez Karam, a senior official with the Free Patriotic Movement, who was charged with collaborating with Israel. Karam benefited from a sentence-reduction law and was released in April after serving around 18 months in prison.
“But unfortunately, a Sunni Muslim in this country is of no value,” Metlej said. He described life in Roumieh prison as “tragic.” He called on judicial authorities to release all Islamist detainees, who he said are being treated unjustly. Asked about his plans now that he has been released, Metlej said, “I will continue my life and raise my children.”
Ahmad Ayoubi, who spent five years in prison, “definitely has a feeling of injustice.” He said: “I was not brought to trial and received no charges.”
Referring to other Islamists still in prison, Ayoubi said, “there are young men inside whose children are hungry ... we want them to be treated humanely and to be released.”
He said the situation inside the prison is inhumane. “You cannot live in this prison, cattle cannot live there,” he said. “We were seven or eight inmates to a cell where only one man can fit.”
Also released Tuesday were Ibrahim Qbayter, Ahmad Safarjalani, Hussein Sahyoun and Abdel-Rahman al-Bayda.
Of the other seven who had also been due to be released, Palestinians Mohammad Wehbe and Jihad Qadi were referred to General Security, and Palestinian Mussa Ismail, along with Syrian Munjid Fahham, remained in prison on other charges.
Lebanese Ahmad al-Ater still has to serve a month and a half on another charge and Mahmoud Seif, also Lebanese, is charged with unrelated attacks against the Lebanese Army. Ahmad Ahmad still has three more days to serve.
On their way home, the detainees received a public welcome in the northern town of Qalamoun, where they were carried and showered with rice.
In Tripoli, Sheikh Salem Rafeii welcomed the released detainees in his home.
Rafeii said it is unjust to keep the remaining Islamists in custody until a courtroom is opened in September, as promised by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.
“Through [retaining the detainees in prison], extreme injustice will be inflicted on them and on their families,” he said.
“We wish that all Islamist detainees be released, especially since they committed no crime, but that they were arrested after telephoning wanted people,” he added.
He said that officials have promised to him that they will release the remaining detainees.
Relatives of Islamist Tarek Merhi, who is still in prison, erected a tent in Tripoli’s Nour Square in protest against Merhi not being released Tuesday. A larger sit-in stopped Monday after the organizers heard that some detainees were set to be released.
Families of some released detainees gathered near Roumieh prison in the early morning, with Ayoubi’s relatives skeptical that he would actually be released.
“They dragged him in his pajamas and slippers because he received a phone call from his friend, who turned out to be in Fatah al-Islam,” his sister told The Daily Star. “We knew nothing about him for one month ... and there are people suffering similar injustice in the prison who have received no trial.”
“He spent five years in prison and couldn’t finish his thesis, he was majoring in mechanical engineering – who will compensate him for this?” she asked.