Torture at Every Stage: The Unofficial Narrative of the Hammam al-Agha Raid

2014-11-12    |   

Torture at Every Stage: The Unofficial Narrative of the Hammam al-Agha Raid

Editor’s Note: On the evening of Saturday, August 9, 2014, a patrol from Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) Morals Protection Bureau raided the Turkish bathhouse known as Hammam al-Agha in Beirut and arrested 28 people: 12 employees and 15 customers, in addition to the owner of the bathhouse. The stated reason for the raid: the suspected “presence of homosexual individuals”. Public Prosecutor in Beirut, Bilal Dennawi, decided to prosecute all those arrested, charging both customers and employees with a number of criminal offences, including intercourse, contrary to nature (Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code), and infringing on public morals and ethics (Articles 531 and 532). The arrested employees were also charged with practicing secret prostitution (Article 523), as investigations mentioned that most of them gave customers massages. The Legal Agenda previously published an article by Attorney Ghida Frangieh about the infringements found in the investigations dossier.[1]


For a more complete picture of what took place during and after the raid, it was essential to hear the testimony of those who were arrested and interrogated. Indeed, official investigation and prosecution reports are drawn up by the same individuals who carry out these procedures (judicial police, judges, etc.). Reflecting the official narrative, such reports often include a partial retelling of what took place, and always omit information that might constitute clear evidence of infringements. It would thus be unthinkable to find any indication in an investigation report of the use of torture. It was therefore necessary to hear the testimony of some of the individuals who were investigated…and tortured. In collaboration with the NGO Helem, and under the supervision of Sarah Wansa and Ahmad Saleh, The Legal Agenda met with six of the employees arrested, in addition to a former employee (the first one arrested) and two of the customers (one Lebanese and the other Syrian). The following is their story.


The Hammam al-Agha police raid is not the first such raid to end with the arrest of individuals on account of their sexual orientation. In a previous article, The Legal Agenda revealed that the private home of a Lebanese citizen was raided in January 2014 by police, after the latter received a “tip” about the possible “presence of homosexual individuals”.[2]


How the Hammam al-Agha Ordeal Began: “Let’s Have a Look at Your Mobile”


The ordeal began with S., a former employee of Hammam al-Agha and a Syrian refugee who was registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon. S. recounted his encounter with the police:

“While waiting to be resettled in a different country, I lost my identification documents and had to obtain a travel pass from the General Directorate of General Security (“General Security” hereafter). During my interview on Friday, August 8, 2014, the General Security investigator inquired about what I did for a living in Lebanon. I told him that I was currently unemployed and reliant on UNHCR aid for some of my expenses. I also told him that I was traveling to another country soon. This aroused the interest of the General Security officer, who said to me: “You’re traveling my (expletive)! Let’s have a look at your mobile!”


Upon review of the official police report, it appears that as soon as the investigator determined that the young man’s behavior and speech were “uneven”, he dropped his investigation of the detainee’s missing documents. Commenting on the “uneven” behaviour claim, S. told The Legal Agenda that nothing about him indicated a specific sexual orientation, and that in the presence of security personnel, he pays extra attention to his behaviour. The young man said that the investigator took his mobile and started reading his messages, listening to his recordings and examining his pictures. When he was done, he yelled at him “you’re a faggot, you’re a faggot you prick!”, then started beating him violently.


S. went on with his story:

“When (the investigator) was done beating me, he moved me into a detention cell. He then entered the cell with two other officers, who started beating me with a stick on my head and body. They asked me about my previous job, and I said I used to work at a Turkish bathhouse. One of them said: ‘Liar! You’re a faggot!’. Later, I was surprised when someone arrived who I was told was a ‘physician’. They asked me to take off my clothes. They said: ‘of course you’re afraid to get undressed because you’ve waxed like a girl’. They left me standing there naked for about fifteen minutes, without anyone coming near me, and then asked me to get dressed again. One of them said to me: ‘aren’t you ashamed to be a faggot on a Friday, you dishonorable lout! You’re Syrian and you’re doing this in our country!’. One of the General Security officers didn’t like my goatee, so he cut it off. Everything I told them, I did while being beaten, either with a stick or with a wire they call ‘the Sudanese’.


The General Security officer then called his superior to inform him of what happened: that he’d arrested a ‘faggot’ and wanted a vacation. He got his vacation and I went to jail. I signed the report without knowing what was written in it. I asked to call one of my friends to inform him that I’d been arrested, but they turned down my request and moved me to the General Security detention center. There too, I was received with humiliation and beatings. They asked for my name, and I gave it to them. Then they asked for my ‘stage name’. When I told them I didn’t have one, they said ‘yes you do: your name is Chouchou [in reference to a Lebanese comedian], and started beating me again.”


On the next day, August 9, 2014, S. was transferred to the Morals Protection Bureau at the Hobeich police station. There too, he says he was severely beaten while being asked about his work at Hammam al-Agha. He begged them to stop beating him: “For God’s sake, I can’t take it anymore! One of the Bureau’s investigators replied: ‘I don’t worship God…I worship the female body. I’m going to teach you to worship the female body”.

S. was returned to the detention center, and then called again for interrogation. According to S., the interrogation itself was very brief. They had already taken his statement under beating and torture, and he had signed the report without reading it or knowing what it contained.


How the Raid Took Place: Hobeich ISF Officers Ask for a “Special Massage”


The investigation report describes the raid and the events that followed very briefly. It reads as follows: “At 7pm on the aforementioned date, our patrol headed from our Bureau to the Hammam al-Agha establishment in Hamra, which we raided, arresting the following individuals present there: (…)”.

It was therefore very important to ask the people interviewed by The Legal Agenda about the events that took place during the raid and following their arrests.


Testimonies of those present during the raid indicate that about ten plainclothes officers from the Morals Protection Bureau raided Hammam al-Agha at around 7 pm. None of those present there, neither employees (all of them Syrian) nor customers, were expecting the raid. Some had just arrived, while others were getting ready to leave. One of the employees recounts:


“I was standing at the entrance when an individual in civilian clothing came in. He did not introduce himself as an the ISF Chief Warrant Officer, but merely asked for a ‘special massage’. I apologized and told him that we don’t offer what he was looking for. But he repeated his request, adding that he was sent here by someone named X. I apologized again and politely asked him to leave. As he was about to walk away, the bathhouse was raided by a group of armed and plainclothes ISF officers. They raided the bathhouse while customers were still inside. No one was in any position ‘infringing on public morals’, but the officers went into all the massage rooms and asked everyone for identification documents, before taking us all to the Hobeich police station.”


Another employee gave his testimony of the events:

“The ISF officers asked the bathhouse employees to show them the rooms used for sexual purposes. When they didn’t find anything, they started beating one of the employees. They went in and searched the bedrooms (some of the employees stay at the bathhouse and have their own private bedrooms there). They confiscated personal belongings including sachets of hair gel, allergy medication and painkillers for toothaches.”

The official report spoke of a number of condoms seized at the bathhouse. Based on the above testimony and other statements by employees, it appears that these condoms were in fact seized from among the employees’ personal belongings.


One of the customers describes how they were driven from the bathhouse to the Hobeich police station:

“They transported us as if we were flies. The violence started from there. We were all piled up on top of each other. One of those arrested said to the officers: ‘What, are you going to pile us up one on top of the other?’, and one of the ISF officers answered: ‘Yeah! Weren’t you on top of each other a while ago?’”


Another customer adds:

“First of all, when someone gets arrested, they’re supposed to get arrested on a clear charge and this was not the case. When they arrested us, they told us that ‘you’ll come to the police station, we’ll take your statement and you’ll go home’. They literally told us ‘you’ll go home’.”

Other testimonies confirm this account, and the employees we met say that ISF officers told them it would be no big deal: “They want to pin it on the owner of the bathhouse, they told us. This has nothing to do with you guys”. Another customer asserts that they were told this would be a simple matter: “You’ll go home in an hour.”


Preparing for the Interrogation: “Will You Stop Beating Me if I Confess?”


According to their testimonies, the detained employees were not interrogated on the first day of their arrest, or even on the second. Those two days were set aside for terrorizing them. All detained bathhouse employees were beaten by “investigators” who have taken [sensitivity] courses, and were trained to respect human rights and conduct investigations in a proper manner. The training apparently paid off. They selected the youngest employee (born in 1990) as the target of the torture technique known as “al-farrouj” (“the chicken”), under which the victim’s hands are tied behind their back while the soles of his feet are beaten. The entire act was intended to force the employee to admit to his sexual orientation, and then to reveal whether acts of a sexual nature were taking place at the bathhouse between employees and customers, or even among customers. His coworkers say, “they kept beating him until his feet were swollen”.


We met with the young man who was tortured with the “chicken” technique. He says:

“I can’t forget the beating. They took everyone else outside and left me alone with the ISF officers. One of them asked me ‘how many do you go out with?’, I told him I didn’t know anything and they started beating me again. They kept beating me until I reenacted my massage routine on the hand of one of the investigators, who said ‘I can tell from your touch that you’re a faggot’.


One of the [officers] said ‘this one’s the biggest liar’, all while beating me with an iron pipe on my arms until I couldn’t move them anymore. I asked him: ‘why are you beating me?’ He answered: ‘because you’re stuck up’. He then ordered me to lie down on the floor. He brought in a chair, lifted my feet, placed them on the chair, and started the beating. He kept beating me for half an hour and everyone in the building heard me scream. A woman who works with [the ISF] came in the first time and asked them to stop, but they didn’t listen to her. Then she came in a second time, took me out of the room into the entrance hall, and brought me a bag of ice.


Afterwards, the same person came back, the one they call “al-watwat” (the bat). He made me walk on all fours until I reached the entrance of the room, all the while kicking me from behind. He said ‘well, we’ll let you rest a bit and then we’ll continue’, and they put me back in detention. They called for me again at 3am. They interrogated me and then one of the investigators came closer, called me a liar and started slapping me on the chest. I lost consciousness and fell to the floor. He grabbed me by the throat and lifted me up until I couldn’t breathe anymore. After that, four people kept beating me until 5am.


They called for me again at 6am, because one of the customers allegedly confessed that I had sex with him. When I denied it, they beat me with a wooden stick. One of the investigators told me that everyone had confessed but me, and that ‘you’re getting a beating because you haven’t confessed yet’. After two days of beatings, I couldn’t take it anymore. I agreed to everything and the beatings stopped.”


All of the bathhouse employees who were arrested were beaten and tortured. Some had a bag placed over their head and were severely beaten in order to make them confess to “engaging in sodomy”, and to accepting money from customers at the bathhouse for so-called “special massages”. One detainee says: “They called for us at 2am and started beating us. They threatened [to torture] me with electric shocks. One of them placed a bag over my head with electrical wires and beat me”. Another adds that: “They kept beating us one after the other. They told us ‘beware of telling anyone that we beat you, or else you’ll never leave.’”


This was also meant to terrorize the detained customers. The employees would be tortured in rooms close to those in which they were being detained – sometimes even in the same room. One employee recounts: “They would bring us into the interrogation room and beat us to terrorize the customers. They would then say to the customers: ‘Tell us what we want to hear and you could get out in two days.’”


Another adds:

“They hit me on the neck until I agreed to ‘admit’ that I brought coffee to the steam room for one of the customers and had sex with him for LL10,000 [US$6.67]. When I asked if they would stop beating me if I confessed to this, they said, ‘yes, we will stop beating you’.”


One of the customers we met states that:

“We couldn’t sleep, because of the screaming and because we were waiting to find out what would happen to the [employees]. One of the employees came back with his legs swollen from the thighs down and couldn’t walk until the next day. I asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way there I saw one of the employees sitting in the hallway. His hands were tied with one of his legs between them, his head was lowered and they were beating him on the head and neck. They were punching him and saying ‘don’t say anything – let your boss help you out’.”


Another asserts that beating the employees was aimed at pressuring the customers:

“The delays that took place were all meant to strain our nerves. In addition to beating the Syrian [employees], they made sure we always heard screaming and beatings, to remind us that we should cooperate”.


During this process of preparing for the interrogation, there was no shortage of racist comments and references to the events in Syria. The employees would be asked sarcastically: “Where is it better for you, here or with ISIS?”, or “who among you served in the Syrian army? My brother died in Syria and I want retribution”. Before getting on the record and officially starting the investigation, some of the employees were asked to unlock their mobiles so that their contents (pictures and messages) might be searched.


HIV and Illegal Drug Tests at the Detainees’ Own Expense


By order of Public Prosecutor Bilal Dennawi, all those arrested had to undergo HIV and illegal drug tests without their prior approval. No physician was appointed to conduct these tests, and the task was carried out by one of the Morals Protection Bureau investigators. According to the testimonies documented, those arrested had to bear the expense for these tests, amounting to LL45,000 [US$30] per person.


All those arrested also had to undergo illegal drug tests, despite the fact that no illegal narcotics were found with any of them. Urine tests are usually required for drug testing, and one of the employees we met says he had trouble urinating: “The presence of a Moral Protection Bureau officer present in the bathroom with me made it more difficult. When I told him I couldn’t urinate due to his presence, he asked me to take off my clothes and sprayed me with a water hose, telling me to kneel then stand up until I could urinate”.


Only those who tested positive were informed of their results. One of the customers we met stressed the fact that the investigators referred to these tests with an aura of dread by hinting that any detainee is prone to receiving a positive result:

“They called for one person and told him that he had tested positive for HIV. He returned to his detention [space] in tears. Then they called for him again. When he changed his testimony, they told him that he had tested negative”.


The Public Prosecutor at the Hobeich Police Station


The investigation report indicates that Public Prosecutor Bilal Dennawi personally came to the Hobeich police station to supervise investigations. When asked about this, the employees we met said they found out he had been at the station, but only after he had left. While he was there, they were neither introduced to him nor told who he was.


One of the employees states that: “The Public Prosecutor turned to one of the employees and noticed that his neck was swollen. He asked me about the marks on my own neck, and one of the ranking officers answered that I fell down the stairs!” The Public Prosecutor noticed another [of those arrested] who was having trouble walking and asked him why. The man gave him the same answer (“I fell”), for fear of being beaten again by ISF officers.


The Interrogation


The purpose of beating the detainees was to prepare them for interrogation. One of them, who was severely beaten by Morals Protection Bureau officers, told The Legal Agenda that the actual interrogation was quite brief, since everyone was ready to sign anything. He says he actually told the investigator that he was “ready to sign anything – write whatever you want and I’ll sign it”.


Threats of Anal Probing


One of the customers says he was threatened with rectal examination when he denied the “charges” brought against him during his interrogation:

“When we would refuse to confess to homosexuality, they would threaten us with rectal examinations.” This was confirmed by some of the employees, who say even those who had “confessed” to homosexuality were threatened with rectal examinations: “Are you willing to go through a rectal examination so we can be sure? We will ask for a forensic physician to examine you.”


Meanwhile, another customer states that when he denied the charges brought against him, one of the ISF officers threatened him, saying that “test results (for illegal drugs and HIV) can change”:

“If I insisted on denying the charges and objecting to his questions, [the investigator] would continue to fill out the report without paying any attention to what I was saying. I said: ‘Hold on! Where are you going with this?’ He answered: ‘You’re the one who’s going’, and then asked me to sign. I signed because my position had been weakened”.


Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary in the investigation report, none of the six employees we met were neither informed of their rights, nor asked whether they wish to exercise them as stated in Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.


One of them goes on to say:

“In exchange for allowing me to call my family, [the investigators] asked R. (one of the customers), to say that he went into the massage room ten minutes earlier and engaged in ‘sodomy’ with one of the employees, (A.). R. did what they told him, but when A. denied it, they beat him up.”


The Transfer to Zahle Prison


Once the investigations ended, the employees were made to wait from midnight until 3pm the next day, without even being allowed to use the bathroom. They were then transferred to Zahle Prison. As a way of terrorizing them, they were promised a ‘special welcome’ there. When they arrived, some prison inmates were waiting for them. One of [the transferred employees] was told: “Please, I’ve been waiting for five years. I want to get a kick out of you”.


As one employee testifies, they were also severely beaten by inmates there:

“We arrived at Zahle Prison and they stood us all up facing the wall. One of the Hobeich police officers hit us on the neck and told the prison guards to take good care of us. Afterwards, the inmates started beating us. We didn’t know where the blows were coming from.”


The humiliation [inflicted on the arrested employees] went beyond beatings and verbal abuse. One detainee says that Zahle inmates shaved off their eyebrows. When the Lieutenant Colonel at the prison asked who had done this to the detainee, the latter did not tell the truth out of fear that other inmates will seek revenge.


At Zahle Prison, the employees were forced to pay certain amounts of money, ranging between US$100 and US$500 to ensure that they would not be molested. Those who did not pay were forced to sleep in the bathroom, or were deprived of food and subjected to constant beatings and insults from the other inmates.


The General Security Investigation


Despite a court ruling ordering the release of those arrested in the Hammam al-Agha case, the bathhouse employees remained arbitrarily detained at the Zahle Prison, while waiting to be transferred to the General Security detention center. This unlawful practice has been perpetuated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Cassation, in the form of a general directive to prison wardens to transfer all foreign detainees to the General Security prior to their release.


The General Security conducted another investigation of all the detainees. Some of them were beaten by high-ranking General Security officers and mocked with comments such as: “Oh, you’re the Hammam gang! Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you! So who fucks and who gets fucked?”

Part of the General Security investigation focused on how some of the employees have sex, and on finding out who among them plays the “active” role and who plays the “passive” one. The rest of it concerned the dates on which they had entered Lebanon, their jobs, addresses, etc. At the end of the investigation, they were informed of the possibility that they could be asked to leave the country.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.




[1] See: Ghida Frangieh’s, “The Hammam al-Agha Raid: Collective Prosecution in Violation of Individual Rights”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 20, August 2014.

[2] See: Sarah Wansa’s, “Lebanon’s Republic of Shame: Law and Medicine as Means to Humiliate and Frighten”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 18, June 2014.

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