Washington (AFP) – A former member of a pro-Israel Lebanese militia accused by witnesses of torture was released Thursday to the United States, where he is a naturalized citizen, President Donald Trump said.
Trump said that Amer al-Fakhoury, a former member of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) who was detained on his return to Beirut in September, was suffering late-stage cancer.
“We’ve been working very hard to get him freed. He’s finally able to have his entire family at his side,” Trump told reporters at the start of a daily news conference on the coronavirus pandemic.
“The United States has no higher priority than the safety and well-being of our citizens,” he said.
When he was arrested, a Lebanese security source said Fakhoury had served as a senior warden in the notorious Khiyam prison, which was opened in 1984 by the Christian-dominated SLA after Israel occupied southern Lebanon and created what it called a security zone.
Former inmates accuse Fakhoury of ordering the torture of thousands of detainees held there before Israeli forces withdrew in 2000, ending their 22-year occupation of south Lebanon.
But a senior US official cast doubt on Fakhoury’s involvement and suggested the allegations were put forward for political reasons.
“There have been many dozens of Lebanese affiliated with Khiyam prison who have been convicted of torture and other crimes. Fakhoury’s name has never been mentioned in any of those allegations and he was never charged for that,” David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for the Near East, told reporters.
He said that the State Department spoke to Fakhoury’s lawyers, who challenged the credibility of five witnesses, saying three had been in Israeli rather than SLA custody.
Fakhoury was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Israel, according to a Lebanese official, but Schenker said the statute of limitations on the case had expired.
“This was a political football from day one and has been manipulated, I think, for political purposes in Lebanon, even trying to leverage it for some sort of prisoner exchange,” Schenker said.
– Allegations of former prisoners –
At a demonstration last year after Fakhoury was arrested, Abbas Kabalan said he was detained at Khiyam from 1987 to 1988 and accused Fakhoury of both ordering and personally taking part in beatings of prisoners.
“Not a single person held in Khiyam was spared physical and psychological torture,” Kabalan said.
Hilal Salman, another former inmate, blamed Fakhoury for his brother’s death.
“My brother was killed there in 1989 because of a gas bomb thrown at inmates on the orders of two prison heads, including Amer al-Fakhoury,” he said.
Schenker said that the US government was bringing back Fakhoury on a medivac and that he would undergo hospital care on his return for lymphoma.
He said the situation had become increasingly urgent due to coronavirus.
The United States has a complicated relationship with Lebanon, where 241 Marine peacekeepers were killed in a 1983 truck bombing during the country’s sectarian civil war.
Last year, the Trump administration held up $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon for months as it sought to curb the influence of Hezbollah, the Iranian-allied militia and political party.