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Helping Lebanon's torture victims

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News in Beirut

Ehab al-Banna
Ehab al-Banna was tortured over nearly five years
People rarely talk openly about torture in Lebanon; even the victims are reluctant to speak out, much less seek treatment.

But a new centre in Beirut is trying to help those who have suffered at the hands of vicious interrogators and ruthless prison guards.

Centre Nassim, in the eastern part of the city, aims to rehabilitate victims of torture. The idea is to bring everything people may need under one roof.

Here, they can get legal and financial advice. They are also offered medical treatment for their physical and mental wounds.

Some of the people who come to the centre experienced cruel treatment in detention during the civil war in Lebanon, which ended in 1990. Others say they were tortured much more recently.

"There is nothing worse you can do than torture someone," says Cynthia Petrigh, the director of the centre.

"But we are here to help the worst-off. It's so rewarding when you see a smile on the face of someone who has been through hell in detention."

'Nobody gets justice'

Ehab al-Banna says he knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of brutal treatment in prison. He was arrested in 1999 after clashes with the Lebanese army and held for four-and-a-half years.

"They gave us no food no water for three days," he alleges.

"No sleep, no toilet, until we signed a confession. They used electrical torture, water torture and they tied our hands behind our backs and lifted us."

Sign at Centre Nassim
The centre calls for torture to end now that there is relative peace
He shows me some of the techniques he says were used against him. On one occasion, he says, he was so badly beaten that he ended up in a coma for three days - something he still has not fully recovered from.

"It's a very bad feeling" he says. "You have this fear for the rest of your life. They make you a very bad person in the eyes of society."

I ask his lawyer Tarek Shindab about compensation. He just laughs.

"Never - not in this country. They will put you in prison again. That's it," he says.

"Nobody ever gets justice for this."

At the Centre Nassim, however, victims can get practical assistance.

Very often there is a link between the physical and mental effects of torture. The psychological pain sometimes lasts the longest.

Rabih Chammaay, the psychiatrist at the centre, says that some of the victims tortured 20 years ago are still depressed.

There are also those newly released from jail, whose symptoms are slightly different. "They are more agitated and anxious," he explains.

Terror suspects

The first step for treating the victims is to get them to relax.

Selim al-Hilwee, a physiotherapist, tells me he often likes to use calming music and massage to help them open up and accept more specific treatment.

A victim of torture receives a massage at Centre Nassim
Massage helps victims relax and tackle their mental scars
The centre has only been open a few months, but the specialists employed here say they are already seeing positive results.

Lebanon signed up to an international convention against torture in 2000, and in recent years legislation has given victims greater legal protection.

But according to human rights organisations, forms of torture are still widely practised.

Wadih al-Asmar, of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, says that the main issue in Lebanon is that the police think that torture is a method of interrogation.

"It's a particular problem with cases of terrorism," he says.

"Every time a terrorist is suspected, we suspect torture."

The fact is that Lebanon probably has a better record on torture than many countries in the Middle East - but even here, it seems to have taken place much too frequently.

Only now are the victims starting to talk more openly about their experiences, and getting the help they need to recover.

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