Footage of the torture of 15 Syrian and Lebanese agricultural workers in the mountainous municipality of Majdal Akoura sparked anger in Lebanon this week, becoming the latest example of ethnic and sectarian tension simmering beneath the country’s surface.
The graphic video shows a group of half-dressed day labourers — some as young as 12 — with potatoes forced into their mouths as they are beaten and whipped with electric cables over accusations of theft.
Four of the five purported assaulters have since been arrested — including the landowner who employed the workers and reportedly led the torture, the victims’ lawyer, Mohammad Al Baarini, said.
The employer filmed himself committing the beatings, claiming that the workers stole a pair of sunglasses and a wristwatch. The video was later posted on social media as an apparent deterrent to would-be thieves.
It quickly went viral.
Mr Al Baarini said the abuse began as a result of a dispute over wages. The 15 day labourers — three Lebanese citizens and 12 Syrians — were employed as cherry pickers. The employer had reportedly avoided paying the labourers their wages for days, finally using the “stolen” items as an excuse not to do so.
The labourers were collectively whipped, electrocuted and threatened for seven consecutive hours, Mr Al Baarini told The National.
He added he would seek the highest possible punishment for the crimes while prosecuting.
“We will not accept this kind of inhumane abuse,” the lawyer said, calling the case an “unacceptable isolated incident”.
Residents of the predominantly Christian municipality of Majdal Al Akoura — where the video was filmed — quickly denounced the attack, calling it contrary to its values.
The mostly Muslim municipality of Fnaidek, where the Lebanese victims are from, also called the act a “heinous crime” against labourers who were simply “looking for their livelihood”. On Wednesday, residents blocked a major thoroughfare in the area, calling for a swift investigation and accountability for the assaulters.
Social media was quick to point out the employer’s affiliation with the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party and former militant group.
But the Lebanese Forces also denounced the employer’s “reprehensible and deplorable behaviour” and suspended his membership in the party, also demanding a swift investigation.
Since 2019, Lebanon has suffered a prolonged economic collapse that has made resources and basic necessities scarce among its population. About 80 per cent of the country’s people have been thrown into poverty.
The struggling nation also hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees and resentment towards them is not uncommon.
Moreover, Lebanon remains governed by sectarian ex-warlords, holdovers of the country’s 15 year civil war. Political parties in the country are mostly sect-based, touting the preservation of the interests of each individual confession.
As various shortages and crises erupt — symptoms of the economic collapse — many residents fear Lebanon's tenuous confessional balance is at a tipping point.
The video drew widespread condemnation among politicians, security personnel, religious figures and community leaders who were quick to meet in what Mr Al Baarini said was an apparent attempt at damage control.
“People are scared this will boil over or become a Christian versus Muslim thing,” he told The National.