Lebanese police arrested a prominent human-rights lawyer this week after he accused government officials of complicity in a sex trafficking ring involving Syrian refugees that was broken up earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said.
Police detained Nabil al-Halabi, executive director of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, in a dawn raid on his home on Sunday after Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq and a senior adviser filed separate lawsuits for libel and slander of a public official, both criminal rather than civil offences in Lebanon.
HRW called for Halabi’s immediate release, criticising both the manner of his arrest and the jail sentence of up to one year if found guilty.
The lawyer’s comments were posted on Facebook came after Lebanese authorities broke up the country’s largest known sex trafficking network to date in late March, freeing at least 75 Syrian women being held captive.
Internal Security Forces said the women had been raped and beaten, with some showing signs of mutilation.
In one message, Halabi asked: “Who is protecting the human trafficking ring in Lebanon?” and then alluded to Mashnuq without naming him.
In others, he said the interior ministry needs to “clean” itself up.
Halabi is by no means the only person to allege official complicity in sex trafficking in Lebanon, which human-rights groups say has soared as a result of the influx of desperate refugees from the five-year civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Veteran Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has accused “high-level officials in the moral police” of being “complicit” in the trafficking.
But Halabi is the only one so far against whom criminal complaints have been announced.
The lawyer has been a controversial figure since last year, when his involvement in negotiations for the release of Lebanese soldiers and troops held by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group drew accusations he was too close to the militants.
Last month, the lawyers’ syndicate stripped him of the immunity from prosecution that he was afforded as a syndicate member.
“Halabi’s arrest for criticising Lebanese officials and the intimidating way it was carried out sets a dangerous precedent,” HRW’s deputy regional director Nadim Houry said in a statement late on Tuesday.
“The interior ministry may not like what Halabi wrote, but that didn’t give them the right to storm into his house and lock him up”.