An Interview with a Journalist Who Was Tortured for Investigating Hezbollah – By Oz Katerji
Rami Aysha was investigating Hezbollah’s curious practice of selling arms to the Syrian rebels – despite sending fighters to aid the side of Assad – when he was kidnapped at gunpoint. After being held, beaten and interrogated by Hezbollah, he was handed over to the Lebanese authorities, who released him on bail on trumped up charges of arms smuggling. Rami was tried in absentia as he was out of the country at the time of sentencing. He was also sentenced by a military court, despite being a civilian. So when the judge threw out his defence that he was a journalist investigating a story, he didn’t feel that justice had been served all that well.
Neither did Reporters Without Borders, who have called for the withdrawal of all proceedings against Aysha and have described his arrest as “unacceptable” and stated that “it is crucial that the Lebanese judicial authorities distinguish between journalistic investigation and illicit trafficking”. Lest you doubt his journalistic credentials, Aysha runs TIME Magazine‘s Lebanese bureau and has worked with many major foreign news organisations throughout the Middle East, including VICE.
Rami returned to Beirut yesterday. He went to court and his sentence was reduced from six months to two weeks. The fact that he was already locked up for over two weeks means that he should be released straight away, sources told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. He is now taking his case to the supreme court in order to be declared innocent. We caught up with him for a chat.
Rami, chilling out
VICE: Hey Rami, can you tell us how this whole situation started?
Rami: On the 30th of August I was doing a report about arms dealing and arms trafficking in Lebanon when I was kidnapped by Hezbollah and tortured for three hours. The torture continued after I was handed to Lebanese intelligence, who kept me without water, food and sleep for three days. A week after my arrest I saw the military judge who issued an arrest warrant against me and I stayed in prison for one month. After that, I was released on bail and since then I have been attending the hearings.
What did you find out that was so important that Hezbollah felt it necessary to kidnap you?
Well, I discovered that due to the corruption of Hezbollah and the overloading of their their warehouses with weapons, they are selling them to the Syrian opposition. They had no other option to stop such a report because I was so close to providing evidence to the whole world that Hezbollah is corrupt and they are sending their poison to destroy the whole region and instigate the fighting in Syria.
So Hezbollah are fighting with Assad but arming the rebels. Why do you think they are doing this?
As I said before, due to the huge stocks of weapons in their warehouses some of their commanders are selling weapons to make money out of it. It is purely a business thing. I wanted to use my report to show that Hezbollah is not part of the resistance any more, it is a militia causing a lot of chaos in the region. Add to this most of the weapons sold in Lebanon are actually coming from these warehouses, which I was so close to visiting and filming.
What happened to you while you were in captivity?
I was kidnapped in the middle of the street, in front of eyewitnesses and driven to one of Hezbollah’s secret prisons. They tried to make me confess that I was purchasing arms but I insisted I was reporting. My camera which was smashed over my head by Hezbollah members; they even asked me which hand I write with and when I answered left-handed, they started hammering it with a gun. I was badly tortured and badly beaten, I had a broken nose, fingers, ribs and bruises all over my body. I was bleeding for three hours and screaming from the pain. I even passed out twice during my torture.
They knew that you were a just a journalist doing your job, right?
They knew because I identified myself as a journalist and said that I was doing a report. But they didn’t care. They just kept torturing me. They even told me several times that they promised to make me stop writing till the « end of days ».
After this they handed you to the authorities, what was their behaviour like?
Even during my interrogation by the Lebanese intelligence they were more focused on who I met, what reports I was working on – it was more about the nature of my job. Even the judge told me that if I solved my problems with Hezbollah he would release me. This shows how Hezbollah controls the judiciary system and especially the military tribunals in Lebanon. During my interrogation, I urged the judge to extend his investigation and try to arrest those who kidnapped me but he refused.
Do you think that in this instance the authorities are working for Hezbollah?
Sure. It’s not a secret that Hezbollah controls the army, intelligence and military tribunals and they can fabricate any story they want against you. You can never have a fair trial if your opponent is Hezbollah.
Have any charges been brought against the people involved in the arms smuggling?
For the dealers, no, because it directly involves Hezbollah but for the buyers, yes they are convicted.
So despite being able to provide evidence against Hezbollah nothing has happened to any of the members involved?
Nothing has happened to them and no one punished those who kidnapped and tortured me.
What evidence was presented against you?
I challenge them to show one piece of evidence against me. I challenge them to extend the investigation. What makes you feel sorry for Lebanon is that the criminal becomes a hero and the victim becomes a criminal. I am now convicted with the failed attempt of arms purchasing. My only weapon that night was my camera.
What do you think this says about press freedom in Lebanon?
There is no press freedom in Lebanon and freedom of speech has dropped to a dangerous level. We are turning into a real dictatorship. Journalists are facing their worst moment in the history of Lebanon and freedom of speech has disappeared.
But didn’t your sentence get reduced?
There’s no difference between two weeks and six months for me because being judged as guilty threatens my career as a journalist. My annual press credentials are needed to work as an official journalist – especially due to the nature of the topics I cover, they are very sensitive. Today, we take my case to the supreme court hoping to get innocence because I believe I was prosecuted for political reasons. I will fight for justice and innocence until the very end.
Thanks Rami. Good luck.
Follow Rami on Twitter: @ramiaysha
Follow Oz on Twitter: @OzKaterji