The Lebanese village where vengeance became 'justice'
- 20 May 2010
- From the section Middle East
Rana Abu Merhi knelt in front of a freshly filled grave. She did not cry or wail, she just rocked back and forth, her eyes focused on flowers piled up in front of her.
At the end of April, Rana, who is a teacher, returned from work to find her house covered in blood.
She first saw the mutilated bodies of her elderly father Youssef and her mother Kawthar, then she found her daughters, nine-year-old Zeina and seven-year-old Mony.
Both were dead. Zeina had been stabbed 27 times.
This was the most brutal murder in living memory in Ketermaya, Rana's sleepy home village in the Chouf Mountains south of Beirut.
But it was not the crime, it was the punishment that shocked the rest of Lebanon.
Hours after the murder, police arrested a suspect, Rana's neighbour, an Egyptian man who worked as a butcher in the village.
Mohammed Muslem, 38, already had a criminal record and according to the police, after a night in custody he confessed to killing the family.
The next morning, as thousands of villagers gathered for the funerals, a police car carrying the suspect and several policemen appeared in the streets.
Police would later explain that as part of the investigation they wanted Mr Muslem to re-enact the murder at the crime scene.
The crowd stopped the car and dragged Mr Muslem out.
He was severely beaten, but police got him back and even managed to take him to the local hospital.
The mob followed. They snatched him and brought him back onto the streets.
By then, villagers say, the policemen were all gone.
Clear mobile footage, which has been widely distributed in Lebanon, provided a detailed account of what happened next.
The crowd chanted, as they watched a group of young men stab the butcher to death.
His body, stripped down to his underpants, was tied to the front of a car and paraded through the streets.
Once they reached the centre of the village, the young men raised the body and hanged it from a meat hook attached to a post.
'Like a judge'
"They killed an innocent man, a man who was not proven guilty by a court of law, who never had an opportunity to defend himself," says Omar Nashabe, the editor of the legal pages at Lebanese daily al-Akhbar and a well-known criminal justice expert.
According to Mr Nashabe neither Mr Muslem's alleged confession nor subsequent DNA tests that revealed the victims' blood on his T-shirt can justify what happened.
"In this case, the police seem to have acted like a judge. Violation of the presumption of innocence is a continuous problem in Lebanon, but this is just one side of the Ketermaya incident," he says.
There was, he argues, no procedural reason to take the suspect to the crime scene, especially at the time when angry residents were outside.
Rule of law
Many in Lebanon say they want the government to explain who took the decision to take Mr Muslem back and why the police failed to provide adequate protection to a person in their custody.
"It's indicative of the erosion of rule of law in this country and it's a huge test for the Lebanese authorities," says Nadim Khoury of Human Rights Watch.
"Will the government be able to explain the police actions? Will they conduct a transparent investigation? We are waiting for the answers," he adds.
Politicians have promised to act.
From the president down, Lebanon's leaders have spoken about their shock and vowed to investigate the crime.
Several youths who participated in the lynching have now been arrested. The country's Justice Minister, Ibrahim Najarr says it's a sign that the government is taking the case seriously.
Mr Najjar said the Interior Ministry had already investigated the actions of the police and taken the "necessary measures".
Mr Najjar refused to elaborate, but sources say the measures consisted of a 10-day suspension of two policemen.
Nobody has been sacked, no-one has resigned.
The BBC contacted the Interior Ministry for the official account of the results of their internal investigation but it refused to comment.
In Ketermaya, windows of shops are decorated with copies of a statement in which residents thank the authorities and the police for allowing justice to take place.
Next to them hang gruesome pictures of the mutilated bodies of Rana's family members.
The villagers are anxious, nervous and at the same time defiant about what happened.
"Its not our fault, it's the police. They are the ones who brought him back," said one man.
"If they want to arrest us, they will have to arrest the entire village. We killed him together," said another. Neither wanted to be identified.
"I think above all what happened in Ketermaya shows the extent of the collapse of the authority of the state, it shows that we are going thought a serious crisis," says Omar Nashabe.
"The whole criminal justice sector is in ruins, and no-one is trying to rebuild it. This incident should be a wake-up call for politicians, a reminder that we need a system in which the state and procedures are respected, in which it's not up to the police to condemn a suspect," he says
However, the man in charge of Lebanon's justice system disagrees.
"Justice in Lebanon exists. We have judges, we have tribunals, we have credibility," says Mr Najjar.
He says it's important to investigate the incident, but he also calls it an isolated case which could have happened in any country and which is not indicative of wider problems.