The Army Command on Wednesday said it rejects any insults against the military institution “under the excuse of the rights of migrant workers,” after Human Rights Watch said troops acted “like a gang” during a raid on a Beirut residence inhabited by migrant workers.
HRW said Wednesday that Lebanon should probe and punish army and intelligence officials behind alleged beatings of Egyptian, Sudanese and Syrian migrant workers during the raid.
The organization said the alleged abuses occurred on Sunday during a raid by armed forces on a residence in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Jeitawi, with troops assaulting at least 72 men following unofficial complaints of sexual harassment in the area.
"According to victims and other witnesses, those beaten include at least 45 Syrian, 20 Egyptians, and seven Sudanese migrant workers," HRW said.
"According to the men, uniformed members of the Lebanese army barged into the rooms where they lived and proceeded to viciously kick and beat them, before asking any questions."
But the Army Command's Orientation Directorate on Wednesday issued a statement clarifying the circumstances of the raid.
“After numerous complaints by citizens in the Ashrafiyeh district of Jeitawi over the practices of migrant workers of various nationalities, and their harassment of passersby and carrying out of robberies and indecent acts, an intelligence directorate patrol, backed by a military force, raided their residences on Sunday night,” said the statement.
“The military force was surprised by the resistance of these workers and their violent confrontation of the troops who were tasked with checking their IDs and work permits. Beatings and a stampede ensued and 11 workers of various nationalities were arrested and referred to investigation,” the statement added.
The Army Command voiced regret that the mission of its troops was “distorted.”
It also regretted “any security act that might target some innocent workers,” but stressed that it rejects any insults against the military institution “under the excuse of the rights of migrant workers, whose rights must not come at the expense of Lebanese men and women targeted by harassment.”
The Army Command called on human rights organizations and media outlets “to fully verify the facts and contact the Army Command in order to clarify any vague details, instead of inflaming the public opinion, and to address the misdeeds that some residential areas are witnessing.”
Nadim Houry, the New York-based rights watchdog's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, had said the soldiers "acted more like a gang than a national institution".
Human Rights Watch said all of the men it interviewed told it they had valid residency papers.
"Lebanon's army is not above the law and the judiciary needs to immediately investigate this attack and hold those responsible to account," said Houry.
Speaking to Agence France Presse by telephone, he said the army "behaved like a mob wanting to defend the honor of local women, attacking the male migrant. The army did not interrogate any of the men. They simply scapegoated them."
There were at least two minors in the group of migrants, HRW said, citing witnesses.
"One Syrian migrant says he was beaten particularly viciously," it said in a statement.
"The army had found a laptop in the room that he rented with others. They asked him to open the computer but he told them that it was not his and he did not know how to operate it. The army proceeded to throw water at him and beat him repeatedly with a wooden stick," said the watchdog.
"HRW saw the bruises on his back."
Lebanese residents of the Jeitawi area where the attack took place told HRW they tried to intervene but the army yelled at them to go indoors, the statement added.
"Beatings against migrants, both men and women, have not in the past generated social criticism," Houry told AFP.
"In some ways, they are accepted in Lebanese society as some kind of necessary way to keep migrants in check. Therein lies the tragedy," he added.
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