BEIRUT: Four Sudanese refugees who had taken part in a hunger strike outside the U.N. refugee agency have been released after a month in detention without charge, but at least seven more remain behind bars.
The men, who are among roughly 20 who began refusing food in June, were arrested in early August outside UNHCR’s office in Jnah, where they had been staging a sit-in. Demanding a faster process for determining refugee status and quicker resettlement for those granted this status, many of the protesters are registered refugees but have been waiting for years to move out of Lebanon.
At least seven of the protesters remain in General Security’s Adlieh detention facility and none of them have been charged with a crime, a senior General Security official confirmed to The Daily Star. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he blamed the UNHCR for their plight.
“They cannot stay more than one month at the General Security; we have a temporary detention center. UNHCR and the public prosecutor should clarify their status and take them,” he said, adding that Beirut’s public prosecutor had originally sent them to General Security but then ordered the four men released two days ago.
“These refugees are not charged with anything, they are innocent and the UNHCR has to help them.”
But a UNHCR spokesperson told The Daily Star that while the agency had called the Internal Security Forces about the protesters, it did not specifically request their arrest.
“We did not call the police to detain them,” said UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman. “We think there is a distinction between the right to protest and the right to block the entrance ... We warned the protesters against continuing to block the entrance.”
Seeing few results from their demonstrations, the fading hunger strikers eventually blocked the door used by the agency’s staff, one of two at the building. Sleiman said UNHCR warned the men four times before “we had to call the ISF to assist us to clear the entrance of the building.”
Sleiman said the UNHCR was now advocating for the release of the remaining detainees and had worked to free the others.
The four men told The Daily Star Thursday, the day after three of them were released, that they had not been allowed to make phone calls nor been told why they had been detained.
Upon arrival at Adlieh, the men were strip-searched en masse, which ex-detainee Haroun Abdul-Aziz called “degrading,” as fellow hunger striker Ali Mohammad Adam cried while demonstrating how the men had to bend over for the search.
They said did not see a doctor or the sun for their entire detention as the Adlieh facility is underground. “Day and night is the same there,” said Adam Adeem, who looked weaker after imprisonment than he did after 50 days without food.
Abdul-Aziz said he had attempted to continue his hunger strike in prison, but staff threatened him with worse treatment if he persisted.
The men laughed at the suggestion that they might have had beds, saying instead they were lucky to share three to a mattress in rooms with toilets that did not flush.
The youngest among them, 16-year-old Mohammad Dawoud Khater, alleged he was hit while handcuffed after another man in his cell, unrelated to the hunger strikers but also from Sudan, caused trouble in the prison. He said an officer threatened to break his neck when he complained of the pain.
The General Security official denied all allegations of violence.
Adam said as a condition of his release he had been forced to sign a paper saying he would not protest at the UNHCR, nor would he return to the agency without an appointment.
“They beat someone in front of me, and I was afraid they would beat me too if I didn’t sign it,” he said. “Who will take care of my children if I die? I was very scared and that’s why I signed the paper,” he continued, adding that he stamped the document with his thumbprint as well.
Sleiman, however, said the UNHCR had “no information” about such a paper, saying “we would never take such a step.”
The General Security official also denied the incident, saying, “We don’t take orders from anyone at the UNHCR; refugees are allowed to demonstrate anywhere they want and we cannot force them to do anything.”
He added that he expected the remaining hunger strikers to be freed within a week.
Adeem returned to UNHCR to protest but is now holding off after the agency said it would look into his case. All of the men said detention had not deterred them, but rather reminded them of the discrimination they said they have faced since arriving in Lebanon.