By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
US citizen Amer Fakhoury, the so-called “Butcher of Khiam” — Khiam being the notorious Israeli prison in south Lebanon where he was involved in the torture of detainees — was released from custody in Lebanon last week. In a televised speech, US President Donald Trump thanked the Lebanese government while announcing the return of Fakhoury to his family in New Hampshire. The arrangement between the US and the Lebanese government is fishy to say the least.
Fakhoury was responsible for the prison where thousands of Lebanese citizens were abducted and tortured in the 1980s and 1990s. He fled Lebanon to Israel after south Lebanon was liberated from Israeli occupation. Later, he traveled to the US and settled in New Hampshire. Last year, he visited Lebanon thinking that the charges against him had been dropped due to the passage of time. However, he was arrested and his file was transferred to the military courts.
He was subsequently found to be suffering from cancer and that led to him being transferred to a hospital where he was undergoing treatment that many Lebanese people — decent, hardworking people — would not have had access to. Pressure was coming from the US to release him. It is said that Trump saw Fakhoury’s daughter weeping on TV and decided to put Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a mission to have him released. Pompeo dispatched his deputy, David Hale, to discuss the issue with the Lebanese government.
When the courageous judge, Najat Abou Shakra, refused to release him despite the enormous pressure, his case was transferred to the appeal court. Last week, while everyone was busy with the coronavirus outbreak, a hearing was held and he was released, under the pretext of passage of time. The judge who released him later resigned as head of the military court. Whatever deal was done, it was done behind the backs of the Lebanese people. If it were a good arrangement for Lebanon, it should have been explained to the people.
However, the deal is said to have been concluded between former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and the US. Some say it was to prevent the US from sanctioning Bassil for corruption. The head of the global federation for resistance scholars, Sheikh Maher Hammoud, said that Bassil was behind the deal and that he should be kicked out of the Free Patriotic Movement. Bassil’s office denied this accusation and said that the head of the party would sue the publication that reported the deal.
The current Lebanese government, which is nothing but a botched recreation of the previous one, has done nothing but hurt the country. The Lebanese citizens’ economic conditions have deteriorated, as well as their health, welfare and education. The only thing that was left was their dignity, or perception of dignity. But the government even deprived them of that by releasing a man who, for years, tortured and killed Lebanese people. The people in power should at least have the decency to explain why they did so.
For the Trump administration, it is, of course, about the upcoming elections. Trump wants to show his people that he cares about every American and he is ready to do anything to bring citizens detained abroad back home. From his perspective, the US was not seeking the release of a criminal, but was merely doing its duty to take care of every single citizen.
The real fault lies with the Lebanese government, which agreed to make the concession without even bothering to inform its citizens why. It is not a coincidence that Fakhoury was released at the same time as another American citizen held in Iran was released. Was the US taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to make those deals, or were both of them part of a big deal with Iran, under which Lebanon was forced to pay a price?
The Lebanese government’s failure to find a decent explanation has left it scrambling to find a scapegoat to justify its position. Of course, it is easier to blame the US in general instead of designating a specific person. The Lebanese foreign minister “summoned” the US ambassador to inquire about Fakhoury’s transfer out of Lebanon. However, if he had not been released, the US embassy could not have taken him out of the country.
People in power are trying to act as if they did not know and were taken by surprise. Hezbollah rushed to clear itself from the embarrassment by broadcasting a televised speech by Hassan Nasrallah, in which he condemned the release, saying that the US exerted pressure on some “Lebanese officials.”
On Sunday, just a few days after Fakhoury’s release, his former aide, Antoine Hayek, was shot dead by an unknown assailant in his village in the south of Lebanon. Was this assassination an attempt to silence somebody who might have known about the internal actors behind the release of Fakhoury?
The arrangement that led to the release of Fakhoury shows the carelessness of the government, which does not seem to have the interests of its citizens at heart. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the government bluntly announced that it could not stop flights from Iran for “political reasons.”
After facing popular outrage, it had to take the decision to ban flights from Iran, but only after accepting a flight from Tehran on the day the resolution was made. In such an environment, where personal interests and foreign political affiliations are more important than patriotism, could the government not at least humor its citizens and show them some care by returning them some dignity?
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.