Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Law enforcement, or rough justice?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Seated under a large rectangular tent in the village of Wadi al-Nahleh on the northeastern outskirts of Tripoli Monday afternoon, surrounded by about a hundred men in suit jackets clutching prayer beads and small plastic coffee cups, the father of Muhammad Abdullah Seif spoke calmly but with iron conviction.

“We will wait for the court to hold the officers responsible to account,” he told NOW. “We don’t want to block more roads – I myself went yesterday to re-open them. But if the court does not act objectively, they can expect our reaction. We are a tribal community, I cannot control the neighborhood. Maybe we will choose to forgive the officers, or maybe we will take revenge.”

In between answering our questions, he rose to greet more well-wishers, coming to pay condolences for the loss of his 19-year-old son, killed Sunday along with fellow villager, 24-year-old Mahmoud Raya, in a shootout with the Lebanese authorities that also took the life of Internal Security Forces (ISF) officer Ali Saqr.

The clashes broke out after the ISF, along with the army, attempted to demolish some illegally-constructed buildings in the village. Wadi al-Nahleh is an impoverished shanty quarter on the hills below the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, inhabited by a few hundred Lebanese tribespeople. Its one tarmac road splinters into gravel alleyways, flanked by unpainted brick shacks with corrugated iron roofs held in place by old tires and planks of wood. Aside from a few small “Free Syria” flags, there is little sign of any political affiliation.

How exactly the gunfire began is disputed. The villagers’ version of events has it that the ISF “opened fire at children who were throwing stones,” at which point locals returned fire in self-defense. Sporting a bandaged arm and head, 38-year-old Mustafa Seif told NOW he was the victim of unprovoked aggression. “I came down to disperse the kids who were throwing stones at the police and army. I turned my back to the army, I trusted them, and they shot me. I now have bullet shards in my neck, back, and hand.”

Another resident identifying himself as a cousin of the deceased Muhammad Seif described a darker scene. “I have to tell you, this was a massacre. My cousin was injured and still the officer shot him again. As for Mahmoud Raya, he was shot from just thirty centimeters away, execution-style.” Such claims cannot be independently verified, though local children showed NOW photos on their phones of a corpse on the floor, a thick pool of blood seeping out of a mangled skull.

By contrast, an ISF spokesperson told NOW their fire only came “in response” to shots from the villagers, who turned violent when the ISF verbally ordered them to remove the illegal buildings.

The mayor of Wadi al-Nahleh, Majed Abd al-Rahman Ghamrawi, could not be reached for comment.

For decades, illegal construction has taken place in hundreds of locations all over Lebanon, and it is unclear why Wadi al-Nahleh was singled out for disciplinary treatment this time. Commenting on the clashes, former ISF head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi suggested the construction was being driven by the influx of Syrian refugees to the area, though NOW saw no Syrians in the village and residents denied any were living among them.

An alternative explanation, cited in some reports, lays the blame on corruption within the ISF ranks. According to unnamed sources, ISF officials had been accepting bribes in return for allowing illegal buildings to stand. When the bribe money was no longer forthcoming, the ISF took punitive measures. This echoes accusations reported by NOW after a similar incident in Tyre in 2011, when two men were also killed by the ISF following attempts to remove illegal construction. On that occasion, residents told NOW that obtaining permission for such buildings by paying bribes to ISF members was commonplace.

None of the Wadi al-Nahleh residents explicitly made this allegation to NOW on Monday, though the late Muhammad Seif’s father said that for four years, disputes with the ISF over illegal construction had been “dealt with peacefully,” a possible allusion to bribery. An ISF spokesperson denied any corruption within the organization to NOW.

Former Tripoli MP for the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, Mosbah al-Ahdab, also finds the theory somewhat far-fetched.

“Unfortunately, there is bribery in this country, absolutely,” he told NOW. “Everything’s falling apart, and corruption is everywhere, to say the opposite would not sound credible. But I don’t think security forces would start shooting at civilians over this.”

In any case, as Seif’s father’s talk of “revenge” made clear, the matter is not yet settled, and more blood may spill before it is. The ISF spokesman told NOW the organization is currently conducting an internal investigation, after which it may resume its attempts to clear Wadi al-Nahleh of illegal buildings.

“We are waiting for the judicial decision. If there is a decision to remove more buildings, then we will do so.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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