BEIRUT — Amid a brewing controversy over the participation of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in a Lebanese army operation against a radical Sunni cleric, army officials said Friday that they were considering filing judicial charges against news outlets that broadcast footage that appeared to confirm the group’s role.
The threat came even as the army came under fire from human rights advocates and Sunni political figures after amateur video surfaced that appeared to show soldiers beating an unarmed detainee. The army also is being accused in the death of another detainee, who was being questioned after his arrest during the two-day siege of a mosque complex occupied by followers of Sheikh Ahmad al Assir.
The burgeoning scandal comes on the heels of a violent fight for control of the mosque complex in the southern city of Sidon, which pitted supporters of the vehemently anti-Hezbollah cleric, who also supports the mostly Sunni rebels in neighboring Syria, against a combined force of Lebanese army commandos and members of Hezbollah’s military wing. At least 40 people were killed – including about 18 soldiers – and scores wounded in the battle.
The cooperation between Hezbollah and the army against a Sunni cleric is particularly sensitive in a country where the army is supposed to be a neutral force among Lebanon’s many sects.
Supporters of Assir demonstrated Friday in Sidon, Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli to protest the military operation against him, Hezbollah’s participation in it and the army’s alleged mistreatment of detainees. Assir remains at large.
Hezbollah’s participation in the Sidon operation was first reported by journalists working for McClatchy and The Times of London who’d witnessed the militant group’s fighters in combat. The Lebanese army energetically denied their reports Monday, but they were confirmed by the broadcast on Lebanese TV of video of apparent Hezbollah fighters conducting military operations.
On Friday the army released a statement that threatened legal action and claimed that the footage and reports were part of a political agenda to discredit it.
“At a time that the Lebanese army was fighting a fierce battle against an armed group that was spreading sedition and meddling with the country’s security . . . a cheap political and media campaign was targeting it,” the statement said.
An army spokesman didn’t return calls requesting comment but the statement alleged that news reporting and the broadcast videos were false and, in the case of the video, fabricated.
“We have the right to refer the matter to the competent judicial authority,” the statement said.
A group of Sunni clerics from Sidon and a major Sunni political party called for the army to explain its cooperation with Hezbollah.
Samir Kassir Eyes, a Lebanese media watchdog and press freedom organization, said the army’s threat of legal action was at least preferable to the physical attacks that Lebanese journalists frequently face.
“We can read the army’s statement in two ways,” the group said. “If the army is intending to silence journalists and using the threat of legal action as a way to prevent them from conducting further investigation into what happened in Sidon, (we) trust that professional journalists will not stop speaking their mind and conveying to the general public their observations from the field.
“If the army intends, by this statement, to give an example of resorting to the official state institutions and to the judiciary process as a way of resolving disputes peacefully, (we) welcome this institution-oriented mindset that contrasts with the tendency to resort to physical assault on journalists and media professionals, which have become unacceptably too frequent.”
Adding to the controversy was the broadcast of an amateur video clip of what appeared to be Lebanese soldiers beating a man who identified himself as the mosque’s janitor. Another statement from the army command said soldiers suspected of involvement had been referred to military police for investigation.
A member of Parliament from Sidon, Bahia Hariri, also called for the army to investigate the death of a man who’d been captured during the Sidon operation. Nader Bayoumi’s family has alleged that he was tortured. Human rights groups have said they’re investigating.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero