Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Fears of crime are growing in Lebanon after a recent sharp rise in the number of kidnappings for ransom.
In particular, the kidnapping of a nine-year-old boy, Michel Al-Saqr, son of Lebanese businessman Ibrahim Al-Saqr, from Zahlé in the Beqaa Valley area in eastern Lebanon, has caused a stir. The boy, who was kidnapped on March 7 while being driven to school, was returned to his family within 24 hours following high-level political activity by his father, an influential supporter of the Lebanese Forces movement led by Dr. Samir Geagea.
The incident caused consternation among the people of Zahlé, where a number of kidnappings and daylight muggings had recently taken place, without any arrests being made.
Although the incident was not the first of its kind, it was the first in which the authorities mounted a serious response, launching a number of police raids on the town of Braital, and naming a wanted criminal Maher Tlais as the likely perpetrator.
Tlais was not found in his house in Briatal in the Baalbek area when it was raided just before the child was released, but he appeared later on a local TV channel denying involvement in the incident.
Local sources in Baalbek, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, described Tlias as a “clever criminal” and said: “He has been a fugitive from justice for years and no one has managed to catch him despite his involvement in numerous thefts and kidnappings.”
The sources added that they expected the kidnappings to continue “as long as this wanted man was on the loose,” adding that he enjoyed political cover which made him unstoppable.
Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, meanwhile, said in a statement on Friday: “It is important to fight the ‘death square’ which specialized in kidnapping, murder, forgery, theft and drugs,” and demanded that “political powers should resolve this issue before they end up at the starting point, from the political and security points of view.”
On his return, the kidnapped child Michel Al-Saqr, told the media that he did not see the faces of his kidnappers and could not identify any of them, in common with other recent kidnap victims.
A day before Michel Al-Saqr was kidnapped, a man called Antoine Daher Al-Kaadi was kidnapped by unknown armed men on the road to the town of Ablah, near Zahlé, and was taken to an unknown destination. The next day, he was released at dawn and his family refused to give any details of the incident to the media in fear for his safety.
Another incident took place on February 13 when 26-year-old Adib Al-Murr was kidnapped. His family said a worker at their factory confirmed their son had been kidnapped when the worker said he received a call from him as he was being seized.
Family members told Asharq Al-Awsat that “he was kidnapped in the Zahlé area and woke up and find himself in the Daheih [a Beirut suburb] area,” but could not identify his kidnappers.
The same sources said Adib “was not harmed physically but his psychological state was poor and he suffered from cuts to his feet due to walking barefoot when he was released on the outskirts of the Daheih, where police took a statement before releasing him to his family.”
Another kidnapping case remains open after seven years, that of engineer Joseph Sader, who was kidnapped seven years ago on the road to the airport in the Daheih area while on his way to work at Beirut International Airport. His case is still under investigation and the search for him is ongoing.
Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, when he was Director-General of the Internal Security Forces, told the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee in a session held to discuss Sader’s kidnapping that information was available which said Sader had been taken to the heart of Daheih and has not been seen since.
Meanwhile, statistics compiled by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces have shown that the rate of muggings had risen from 98 incidents per month in 2012 to 143 in 2013. The rate of house burglaries showed a slight increase from 210 per month to 222 in February 2013. The theft of motor vehicles, meanwhile, has risen from 98 per month to 149 over the same period. In contrast, robberies recorded a drop in incidents from 94 per month to around 75 this year.
Security sources expect robberies to increase as a result of the migration of Syrians to Lebanon, as well as the deteriorating security and economic problems in the country as the war in neighboring Syria continues.