Dozens of political detainees were tried; some aspects of their trials fell short of international standards. There were reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees which were not investigated. At least five people were sentenced to death and two others were executed. A militia allied to Israel continued to hold at least 140 prisoners in South Lebanon. Fifty former prisoners in South Lebanon and Israel were released in an exchange. At least 28 civilians were reportedly killed in the military conflict in South Lebanon, most in attacks which may have been indiscriminate. The fate of thousands of people abducted by armed groups in previous years remained unknown.

In October the Lebanese parliament elected General Emile Lahoud, head of the army since 1989, President. In May and June local elections were held in all provinces, for the first time in 35 years, with participation from all political forces in the country. In June the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights called on the government to ratify the un Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In December the new cabinet, formed under the premiership of Salim al-Hoss, decided to permit authorized demonstrations, banned since 1993, and to review the audio-visual media law of 1994, enforced in 1996 (see previous Amnesty International Reports).

In January the Lebanese army launched an attack on Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, former Secretary General of Hizbullah (Party of God), and a group of his followers in Ba'albek. In the violent clashes which ensued, scores of people were wounded and eight were killed, including a civilian woman and Khodr Tulays, a close aide to Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli and a former member of parliament.

Conflict continued in South Lebanon in and around Israel's self-declared “security zone” mainly between the Israeli Defence Force (idf) and Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (sla) on the one hand, and Hizbullah on the other. However, other groups such as the Amal Movement and the Lebanese National Resistance Movement were reported to have mounted operations against the idf and sla during the year. During the year military operations by all parties to the conflict threatened the safety of civilians.

In April the Israeli government offered to withdraw from South Lebanon, in accordance with un Resolution 425 of 1978, if the Lebanese government undertook to stop Hizbullah attacks against Israel and to safeguard the security of Israel's northern border. The Lebanese government rejected the offer insisting that un Resolution 425 required Israel to withdraw unconditionally. The International Monitoring Group met more than 30 times during the year to examine complaints lodged by Lebanon and Israel regarding violations of the 1996 “April Understanding” (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

 With the agreement of the Lebanese government, Syrian forces remained deployed throughout most of the country.

In March, 121 Lebanese political prisoners were released from Syrian prisons, and handed over to the Lebanese authorities. Eighteen were remanded in custody in Lebanon; 103 were released. Among those detained was Kaytel al-Hayek, a former Lebanese army officer accused of involvement in the murder of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami (see below). Also detained was Zafer al-Muqadam who had been detained in Syria since 1996 for alleged links with the pro-Iraqi wing of the Arab Socialist Ba'th party (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998). Hani Shu'aib and Hassan Gharib, who were both detained in Syria for their suspected connection with pro-Iraqi wing of the Arab Socialist Ba'th party (see previous Amnesty International Reports), were among those released in March. Ahmad Hamad, a doctor who was arrested in Lebanon in 1997, was released from detention in Syria in June (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Scores of Lebanese nationals were still believed held in Syrian prisons (see Syria entry).

Dozens of political prisoners were tried during the year by the Military Court and the Justice Council, whose proceedings _ such as summary proceedings in the Military Court and lack of judicial review for the verdicts of the Justice Council _ fell short of international fair trial standards.

In July the Military Court sentenced journalist Pierre 'Attallah in absentia to three years' imprisonment on charges of “entry into enemy land [Israel] without permission and contempt of Lebanese security and judicial authorities” (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

The trial of those suspected of assassinating former Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987 continued throughout the year before the Justice Council. The defendants included Samir Gea'gea', head of the unauthorized Lebanese Forces (lf) organization, who was already serving three life sentences (see previous Amnesty International Reports); 12 other lf members, 10 of whom were being tried in absentia; army brigadier Khalil Matar; and Kaytel al-Hayek.

 Kaytel al-Hayek also appeared before the Military Court in July accused of plotting to assassinate General Ghazi Kan'an, Head of Intelligence in the Syrian Forces operating in Lebanon, the same offence for which he had been tried in absentia in 1996 while held in Syria (see above). In August he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, but the four years spent in Syrian custody were taken into consideration.

 The retrial of Antoinette Chahin and others accused of the assassination of Father Sam'an al-Khoury (see Amnesty International Report 1998) began in June before the Criminal Court of Cassation and resumed, after recess, in October. During the trial two defendants, Rashid Daw and Sa'd Jubra'il, retracted their original testimonies, which constituted the sole basis for conviction in the previous trial, on the grounds that they had been extracted under torture. The trial was continuing at the end of the year.

There were reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees during the year. In July, 11 people, mostly former lf members, were arrested and detained in the Ministry of Defence. The authorities stated that the detainees had confessed to crimes including plotting the assassinations of political figures and carrying out a number of violent attacks, such as the bombing of a Syrian minibus in Tabarjah in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). The detainees were reportedly tortured or ill-treated at the Ministry of Defence and confessed under duress. The 11 were charged with “forming a subversive network aimed at destabilizing order in the country”. Their trial before the Military Court began in December and was continuing at the end of the year.

Criminal suspects were also reportedly tortured. Linda Sacbibit, a Philippine housekeeper, was arrested in August on suspicion of theft. Linda Sacbibit was allegedly beaten and otherwise tortured while being interrogated in police custody. No investigation into these allegations or other reports of torture was known to have been launched during the year by the authorities.

 At least one warden and four inmates were wounded in clashes in April when a riot erupted in Rumieh Prison in northeast Beirut in protest against ill-treatment. The riot started after guards reportedly beat and burned a prisoner. Prisoners' complaints included severe overcrowding; cells designed for two prisoners were housing six. The incident sparked calls from local human rights organizations for urgent reform of prison conditions.

 At least two people were executed. In May Hasan Nada Abu Jabal and Wisam Nayif 'Issa, were hanged in public in the central square of Tabarjah, north of Beirut. The bodies of the two men reportedly remained on display for an hour and the executions were broadcast by television stations in Lebanon and abroad. This was the first public hanging in Lebanon since the expansion of the scope of the death penalty in 1994. At least five others were sentenced to death, most convicted of murder. They included Yahya Muhammad al-Ayubi, who was sentenced to death for murder in January. Ahmad Rida Yasin, whose sentence was upheld by the Court of Cassation in 1997, remained under sentence of death (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

 In South Lebanon at least 140 people were held without charge or trial in the Khiam Detention Centre run by the sla in cooperation with the idf (see Israel and the Occupied Territories entry). In June, 50 detainees held in Khiam and in Israel were released in the context of an exchange of prisoners and bodies between Israel and the two Lebanese armed groups, Hizbullah and Amal. The exchange was brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc) and the French government. Israel received the body of Itamar Ilya, an Israeli soldier who was killed in an Israeli operation in South Lebanon in September 1997. Israel gave back the bodies of 40 Lebanese killed in Lebanese operations against the idf or sla.

Other releases from Khiam unconnected with the exchange included those of Michel Nahra, 13-year-old Mazen 'Abdallah, and Suha Beshara (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Visits by the icrc and by prisoners' families to Khiam resumed in July after about a 10-month suspension (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

During the year 28 Lebanese civilians were reportedly killed in the military conflict in South Lebanon, most as a result of attacks which may have been indiscriminate. For example, in December Nadwa 'Uthman and her six children were killed in their home when Israeli warplanes raided suspected Hizbullah targets near Ba'lbek in the Eastern Beqaa', outside the “security zone”. Hizbullah retaliated by firing rockets into the towns of Kiryat Shemona and Nahariya in northern Israel, reportedly injuring 11 civilians.

The fate of thousands of people, including Palestinians, Lebanese and other nationals abducted in Lebanon by armed groups since 1975, remained unknown.

Throughout the year Amnesty International urged the authorities to guarantee fair trials for political prisoners, to investigate allegations of torture, and to commute death sentences. The organization expressed concern over the safety of civilians in South Lebanon and Israel to the Israeli authorities and to Hizbullah.

In August the Lebanese authorities wrote to Amnesty International regarding the death penalty, stating that the punishment for intentional murder had been strengthened since 1994 as a “temporary measure”, that the penalty was not carried out “except against the criminal who deserves such a punishment as he constitutes a true menace to society”, and stressing that conviction followed long and open trials where the accused were entitled to the right of defence. While welcoming the willingness of the Lebanese authorities to enter into dialogue with the organization on this matter, Amnesty International remained concerned about the increasing number of death sentences and executions since 1994.