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World Perspective | MIDDLE EAST

Fate of Prisoners After Israeli Exit Yet to Be Settled

Some Lebanese have been held more than a decade. Scores have never been tried or legally sentenced, rights groups say.


BEIRUT — To many Lebanese, they are heroes. To Israelis, they are terrorists.

But the imminent Israeli pullout from Lebanon has raised anew the question of what Israel intends to do with the 11 Lebanese imprisoned in Israel and the nearly 150 others held at the notorious Khiam prison in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.

The prisoners have been locked away for years, in many cases for more than a decade, and those in southern Lebanon have never been tried or legally sentenced, human rights groups say.

In the past, Israel has argued that it bears no responsibility for the prisoners held by its militia, the South Lebanon Army, at Khiam prison, where torture has been "endemic," according to groups such as Human Rights Watch.

As for the Lebanese held in Israel proper, 10 of whom were abducted from southern Lebanon, Israel has given no indication that it intends to release them when it pulls out of a 9-mile-deep self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon in the coming weeks.

The Israeli Supreme Court last month ordered the release of 13 Lebanese held for years without trial as bargaining chips to get back missing Israeli soldiers. But that didn't apply to the 11 Lebanese prisoners who have been convicted in Israel of various security offenses.

Tamar Peleg of the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel said her group considers even these convictions unlawful because in all but one case the accused were captured in Lebanon and brought to Israel illegally.

The SLA so far has been silent about the future of the Khiam inmates. "It is too soon to talk about this," spokesman Raymond abu Morad said. "When this war situation closes, also this prisoners [issue] will be closed."

But it could soon become an issue for Israel, because the militant Islamic guerrilla movement Hezbollah, which is fighting the Jewish state in Lebanon, has said it will not accept a pullout that does not include the release of all Lebanese prisoners.

"If someone came in and took over your house, and then left but took one of your sons with him, would you say that was OK?" asked a Hezbollah spokesman in Beirut, the Lebanese capital.

Mohammed Safah, head of a Lebanese nongovernmental organization demanding the immediate release of all Lebanese prisoners of Israel, said he fears that some of the Khiam inmates might be transported to Israel for interrogation after the pullback.

Physical conditions for the 11 Lebanese imprisoned in Israel are better than in Khiam. Nevertheless, "they are really suffering," said Sahar Francis, an attorney working with the Palestinian human and prisoners rights organization Ad Damir. "These men are being held without any connection with their families. They only receive letters through the Red Cross."

In Lebanon, the symbol for all of the jailed Lebanese is Samir Sami Kuntar, who has been imprisoned since leading a 1979 raid on the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss attended a ceremony for him in Beirut on April 22, the 21st anniversary of his capture.

Kuntar was one of four Arab gunmen who sneaked into Israel aboard an inflatable boat, and their attack left four Israelis dead, including an infant. Kuntar was tried in Israel for murder and infiltration and sentenced to four life terms plus 47 years in prison.

Kuntar was a 16-year-old enthralled by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's ideology of pan-Arab nationalism when he led the raid, family members interviewed in Beirut said.

A photo of him now shows a middle-aged man with a neat mustache. He has since learned Hebrew, obtained a college degree by correspondence courses and is studying for a master's degree in political science from a prison deep in Israel's Negev Desert.

"After 21 years, he still thinks everyone must fight . . . for the Arab cause," said his journalist sister, Lamis, who was 2 when her brother was captured. "I am very proud of him."

But for Semadar Haran, whose husband and two children were three of the Israeli victims that day, the demand that Kuntar be freed now is "crazy. It seems like blackmail.

"If I knew that one child would be saved thanks to Kuntar's release, perhaps I would feel differently," she said.

But that's not the case, she added, because Lebanon isn't offering any guarantees of peace after the pullback.

Batsheva Sobelman and Efrat Shvily in The Times' Jerusalem bureau and Aline Kazandjian in The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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