The death of Lebanese businessman Ghazi Ezzeddine on May 4, while under the custody of UAE authorities, has re-sparked the debate on the fate of Lebanese citizens (mostly Shiites) arrested in recent years for alleged links to Hezbollah.
The reasons behind the arrests of Ezzeddine and the others have not been made public. The arrests which occurred against a backdrop of regional tensions, especially between the Sunni monarchies and Shiite Iran are nothing new. Over the years, dozens of Lebanese were detained in the UAE for alleged links with Hezbollah.
A dozen detainees returned to Lebanon in 2021. The return, which was mediated by former General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, was given great media attention.
Others were later repatriated without making the headlines and cases remain vague with both Lebanese and UAE authorities unwilling to provide information on the arrests.
According to Amnesty International’s Gulf bureau, Ezzeddine, along with eight other Lebanese, including his two brothers, were arrested in Dubai on March 22, without any details on the charges.
Aboul-Fadl Chouman, spokesman for the families of the detainees in the UAE, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the 55-year-old businessman and father of three was arrested, along with nine other Lebanese citizens working in the UAE.
Amnesty International reported that Ezzeddine died in prison on May 4, and his death was not announced until May 10, when his son was called to come and identify the body. No autopsy was conducted.
During the examination of the body, Ezzedine’s son was allegedly allowed to see only the face of his father, who was buried in the UAE. The two brothers of the victim were released on May 11, and banned from leaving the country, Amnesty added.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UAE Fouad Dandan refused to comment on the case and told L’Orient-Le Jour to contact the Lebanese Foreign Affairs Ministry. When contacted, a ministry refused to disclose the number of Lebanese nationals detained in the UAE.
In a statement issued last weekend, the Foreign Affairs Ministry reported that Ezzeddine died “of a heart attack” without stating that he was in custody.
The statement added that the Lebanese ambassador to the UAE had “contacted the wife of the deceased and his brother on May 12, and received a letter signed by the family confirming that Mr. Ezzeddine died of a heart attack and that he was buried in the presence of his family in the UAE at the family’s request.”
Several Lebanese news sites contradicted this version of the story, claiming that Ezzeddine died under torture and that the UAE authorities buried him without allegedly allowing his family to repatriate his body.
Our editorial staff has not been able to independently verify this information.
Fourteen Lebanese detainees
Pointing to the “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the Lebanese businessman’s death, Sima Watling, an Amnesty International researcher, called on the UAE authorities to “launch an independent and impartial investigation” into the case.
Asked about the reasons behind these arrests, Watling said that “usually, in cases related to state security in the UAE, the charges are not made public by the authorities until the defendants are brought to justice.”
Watling indicated that a first wave of arrests took place in 2015 and that 14 Lebanese are currently detained in the UAE in security cases. These figures match those given by Aboul-Fadl Chouman, who told L’Orient-Le Jour that half the detainees were already brought to justice, while three men arrested at the same time as Ezzeddin, — Rida Safieddine, Adel Hamadeh and Abdelhamid Ezzeddine — were allegedly released Friday.
“The UAE authorities certainly released these men because of media pressure and, in any case, they had nothing to accuse them of,” said Chouman. “We still don't know when they will be allowed to return to Lebanon. There is every reason to believe that they will spend another 20 days in the Emirates, until the traces of torture disappear,” he added.
According to Chouman, Walid Mohammad Idriss, Ibrahim Srour, Moustapha Ezzeddine, Hussein Ezzeddine and Ibrahim Mtayrek, who were also imprisoned in March, could be released very soon.
Those already serving time include Fawzi Mohammad Dakroub, Abderrahmane Talal Chouman, Ali Hassan al-Mabdar and Abdallah Hani Abdallah, who were given the life sentence, as well as Ahmad Ali Mekkaoui and Ahmad Assaad Faour, each sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Aboul-Fadl Chouman also said that 45 to 47 Lebanese nationals detained in the UAE were released since May 2019. “These men are not linked to Hezbollah. Many Lebanese work abroad simply to help their families,”Chouman said.
Chouman also revealed that the Lebanese authorities could soon send a security official to the UAE to negotiate the release of the remaining prisoners, following the example of the mediation carried out a few years earlier by Abbas Ibrahim.
This information remains unconfirmed.
‘Never affiliated with Hezbollah’
In reaction to the death of Ghazi Ezzeddine, about 50 people protested Monday morning in downtown Beirut, calling on the Lebanese cabinet to intervene for the release of the other detainees.
Ezzedine’s family was present at the sit-in. They believe he died under torture during an interrogation. He spent 30 years of his life in the UAE, “without ever being affiliated to any political party,” they said.
Ezzedine, along with the other detainees, are said to be related. They come from the village of Barish, in southern Lebanon (in Sur).
One protester said her husband, brother, cousin and son, all of whom were arrested, “were never affiliated with Hezbollah.” “We still don't know why they were imprisoned,” she said.
“They were prosecuted because they were successful in business in the Emirates, and because of their faith [Shiite],” another protester said on condition of anonymity.
“Some were arrested because of photos posted on social media with Hezbollah members from the same village,” remarked another demonstrator. “However, in Lebanon, in some areas, each family has a member close to the party, so one cannot rely on that to arrest people,” she said.
Among the protestors was Ferial Chouman, whose son Abderrahmane was sentenced in 2019 to life imprisonment for forming a “terrorist cell” and “planning attacks” at the behest of Hezbollah. Her son “has never been politicized,” she said. “Lebanon is not doing anything to get these men back. I have not seen my son since he was tried.”
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Rana Mousawi, a spokeswoman for Hezbollah, said that “the party has nothing to do” with these detainees. According to her, they were imprisoned “simply because they are Shiites.”
One researcher, who requested anonymity, denounced the lack of transparency surrounding this case, both on the Lebanese and Emirati sides.
“It is impossible to obtain more information on this matter,” said the researcher. “But from my knowledge of the functioning of the Gulf monarchies, this kind of arrest only happens if there is serious evidence of a connection with Hezbollah. These men were surely being watched. What an odd coincidence that they all come from the same village,” he said.
A political analyst opposed to Hezbollah, also requested anonymity and called the “silence” of Hezbollah and Amal on the arrests “suspicious.”“None of their MPs have spoken out on the subject, while they usually mobilize their base for [less important matters]. Either they are really guilty or they simply do not want to incur the wrath of the Emirates, even if it means that members of their community will pay the price,” he said.
This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour in French. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.