Israel told to free Lebanese 'pawns'

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Israel has no right to hold a group of Lebanese men in prison without charge or trial, the Supreme Court in Israel ruled yesterday. Some of the men have languished in jail for more than a decade as hostages to barter for the return of a missing Israeli airman.

The long-awaited decision by a nine-judge panel is a rebuff to Israeli defence officials, whose use of the euphemistically named "administrative detention" laws is among Israel's more brazen human rights abuses.

Zvi Rish, the Israeli lawyer who fought for the release of the Lebanese men, described the decision as "a ruling that sets a principle".

The court's finding, which overturned a 1997 ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court, was broadly accepted by the Israeli government.

It was promptly followed by an announcement by Israeli prison officials that 13 of the 15 Lebanese detainees will be released within the next five days. The officials apparently decided the judgment did not apply toSheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hizbollah cleric who was kidnapped by Israeli commandos from his Lebanese home in 1989, and Mustapha Dirani, a former chief of security with the Shia Muslim Amal guerrilla militia, who was abducted by helicopter-borne commandos from his house six years ago.

The Israeli military said that Mr Dirani - who has filed a $1.5m (£900,000) lawsuit, saying he was raped and tortured in custody - would not be freed, and that no decision had been made about Sheikh Obeid.

Israel made no secret of the fact that the Lebanese detainees - most of whom were seized in Lebanon, convicted in Israel of lesser offences but held long after they had served their sentences - were nothing more than bargaining chips to bring pressure for the return of several missing Israeli soldiers.

Best known of these is Ron Arad, the Israeli air force navigator who was captured in 1986 after his F-4 Phantom jet was shot down over Lebanon.Mr Arad's mother, Batia, described the court ruling yesterday as a betrayal.