Lebanon clerics denounce arrests, ‘abuse’ of Sunnis

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Sunni clerics on Friday denounced the arrests and alleged abuse of Sunni detainees after a deadly battle between troops and supporters of radical Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in south Lebanon.

A rights watchdog said there must be an independent investigation into claims the army is committing abuses against people suspected of links to the weekend clashes in which 18 soldiers died.

The fighting in Abra outside Sidon was the worst in Lebanon since the outbreak of conflict in neighboring Syria 27 months ago deepened sectarian tensions.

It highlighted widespread Sunni resentment against the army, which is accused of siding with the powerful Shiite Hezbollah and being selective in its crackdown on armed groups.

Thousands of worshippers on Friday heard Sidon’s top Sunni cleric accuse the army of making arrests “without due process”.

“People are being taken to prison because they are religious or because they wear a beard or a full-face veil,” Sidon’s mufti Sheikh Sousan said during Friday prayers in the southern city.

“They are being beaten badly, and maybe even dying,” he charged.

A security source said dozens of people have been arrested since the army seized Assir’s headquarters in Abra near Sidon on Monday.

Sidon residents claim the bodies of those killed have not been handed over to their families.

“It is Sidon’s right to know how many people were killed, and to know their names. It is Sidon’s right to know how many wounded there are, and their whereabouts,” said Sousan.

He called for an “independent, objective, transparent... investigation” into abuse claims.

Human Rights Watch called for an independent judicial investigation into abuses.

On Thursday, the army handed over to the military police a group of soldiers suspected of humiliating and beating a man suspected of ties to Assir.

“It’s not enough to have the military investigating itself,” HRW Beirut office director Nadim Houry told AFP.

The army was not immediately reachable, but on Thursday a military source told AFP: “We do not accept this kind of behaviour.”

Sunni clerics, meanwhile, distributed images via Facebook of a body bearing marks of a severe beating.

The body was identified as Nader al-Bayoumy, a man the Association of Muslim Scholars said had “handed himself in” after the Abra clash.

Houry said the man’s family insisted he was alive when the fighting ended, but they later received a call to say his body was at the military hospital in Beirut.

Though Assir had only a small following, his virulent anti-Hezbollah discourse echoed loudly with Lebanon’s Sunnis.

Rage against the Shiite movement has soared ever since it began fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in Syria.

Hezbollah backs the Assad regime, but Lebanon’s Sunni-led opposition supports the rebels.