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LEBANON: Twelve charged in lynching of Egyptian murder suspect

May 20, 2010 |  7:53 am

0 A Lebanese prosecutor has reportedly charged 12 people in connection with the mob lynching of a quadruple-murder suspect in the Mount Lebanon village of Ketermaya last month.

Eight of those charged are already in custody, and the remaining four suspects are fugitives, Agence France-Presse reported. The prosecutor in Mount Lebanon has charged them with "beating, stabbing and lynching" Egyptian national Mohammad Mssalem, 38, in the village on April 29.

All of the defendants are from Ketermaya, but few details about them were provided in the indictments. It is not known when the trial will start.

Nadim Houry, senior researcher at the rights watchdog Human Rights Watch in Beirut, told Babylon & Beyond that the indictments are "an important sign" and a step in the right direction in the case. But he also emphasized that more transparency is needed in the investigation.

The gory murders in Ketermaya sent shock waves through Lebanese society and the public lynching of Mssalem by a vigilante mob put Lebanese authorities under scrutiny and made international headlines.

Graphic video footage of the mob violence was aired on Lebanese TV, and public prosecutor Said Mirza later confirmed, according to Human Rights Watch, that judicial authorities had obtained the names of 10 people suspected of involvement in the lynching by identifying them from the video footage.

Still, it took some time between Lebanese Justice Minster's Ibrahim Najjar's April 30 announcement of the identification of suspects and the arrests, prompting criticism from rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.

Najjar, however, said charging the 12 men shows that the authorities are taking the case seriously, according to a BBC report. He also said the Interior Ministry had taken the "necessary measures" concerning the actions of the police (who allegedly were unable to protect Mssalem from the mob) but did elaborate further.

Mssalem, who was reportedly working as a butcher in the village, was the main suspect in the gruesome murders of an elderly couple, Youssef Abu Merhi and his wife Kawthar, and their two granddaughters, Amina, 7, and Zeina, 9. Zeina was said to have been stabbed 27 times.

News reports said that as he was being driven through the village in a police car for a reenactment of the crime -- to which he supposedly had confessed -- an angry mob pulled him out of the vehicle and beat him up. Police managed to regain control of the situation for a time and took the badly beaten Mssalem to the local hospital. 

Members of the crowd, however, stormed the hospital and overwhelmed police, reportedly pulling Mssalem out of the emergency room.

They then reportedly proceeded to stab him to death, strip him to his underwear and drag his body behind a car as it drove through the village. In the village center, a group of young men allegedly strung up Mssalem's bloodstained body on an electricity pole with a meat hook through his chin.

Houry says it's important to find out who made the decision to take the murder suspect back to the crime scene with only a limited number of police officers protecting him (according to an Human Rights Watch news release, there were a total of seven officers).

Meanwhile, the lynching prompted an apology to Egypt from Najjar.

"I would like to personally apologize to the government and people of Egypt for the reaction in the village of Ketermaya, which would not have happened had it not been for the gruesome crime that preceded it," he was quoted as saying in a statement.

The office of the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman also issued a communique saying that the act had tarnished Lebanon's image in the world.

In Cairo, the Lebanese Embassy reportedly asked for increased protection after receiving an anonymous threat from someone pledging revenge for Mssalem's murder.

Back in Ketermaya, residents are still reeling from the murders. Residents reportedly reacted in anger when authorities earlier this month took three men in for questioning in connection with the lynching, staging protests and blocking the road to the village.

"If they want to arrest us, they will have to arrest the entire village. We killed him together," a villager who did not want to be identified told the BBC.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Angry villagers stage a protest and put out road blockades after Lebanese authorities took three young men in for questioning in connection with the lynching of a murder suspect. Credit: Agence France-Presse