CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — In September, Amer Fakhoury closed his New Hampshire restaurant to take his first vacation in years to visit family in his native Lebanon — a country he hadn’t been to for nearly two decades.
He hasn’t returned to the United States. Soon after his arrival in Lebanon, the 57-year-old American citizen was detained by authorities and remains jailed there. Doctors report that he is in poor health and that his condition is life-threatening, his family said.
No charges have been filed against Fakhoury. His lawyer, Celine Atallah, said it remains unclear why he’s being held. Fakhoury, however, was once a member of the former Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. He also worked at a former prison described by human rights groups as a center for torture.
His family insists he had no direct contact with prisoners and never abused anyone, and there was never an abuse allegation against him.
They feel he’s being used as some sort of pawn in a country that has endured weeks of anti-government protests that led to the prime minister’s resignation last month. Banks, businesses, schools and roads closed for some time.
The protesters have been demanding an end to widespread corruption and mismanagement by politicians that have ruled the country for three decades.
Fakhoury’s family and Atallah accuse authorities of torturing him. In early visits, Atallah and Fakhoury’s wife, Michelle, saw scratches on his face and marks on his neck. He also appeared to have lost a lot of weight.
His family said this week that his health has gotten much worse; doctors told them his condition is grave and life-threatening, including a bad infection, a bleeding disorder and other problems. A court session that was to be held this week has been postponed because of his illness.
“We’re very scared right now,” said Guila Fakhoury, the oldest of his four daughters, from her New Hampshire home. “We don’t know when we’re going to see him again. This is a nightmare for us.”
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. embassy conducted its most recent consular visit with Fakhoury on Nov. 7. No details were provided.
“We take allegations of mistreatment seriously and whenever we receive credible reports of mistreatment we raise our concerns directly with the host government,” the spokesperson said.
Fakhoury’s lawyer is not aware of other cases involving American citizens similar to his. State Department officials said they had “nothing further” in response to the question.
In New Hampshire, Fakhoury ran a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant, where he struck up friendships with patrons and community members. Interested in Republican politics, he once met Donald Trump on a presidential campaign visit. He also hosted fundraisers for a GOP congressional candidate.
Phyllis Woods, chair of the Strafford County Republican Committee, described Fakhoury as “a very caring, open, compassionate person” who was concerned about the lack of affordable housing available in the area.
About 30 family and friends held a rally at the restaurant in September to bring attention to Fakhoury’s case. A handwritten sign posted on the shuttered restaurant asked patrons to pray for his release.
Richard Riemer, of Newmarket, a regular patron, said he’s seen through the years how hard the family works. “You see the unity there,” he said, adding, “They’re still a little piece of my life.”
Fakhoury was one of many South Lebanon Army members who fled after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 following an 18-year occupation, fearing reprisals if they stayed in Lebanon. Others stayed and faced trial, receiving lenient sentences. The countries have been at war since 1948.
Fakhoury’s family says he came to the United States in 2001, where he started the restaurant with his wife and put his four daughters through the University of New Hampshire. But Lebanon was still home.
“My father, he’s the epitome of the American dream,” daughter Zoya Fakhoury said. “He came here for a better life for his family and he worked, he built a business, a successful business.” She said her family doesn’t deserve what’s happened to them.
Fakhoury started looking into a visit after President Michel Aoun last year encouraged former SLA members to return home. Like many others in the army, Fakhoury faced a charge in 1996 of collaborating with Israel, but that was dropped, Atallah said.
“He was actually granted assurances from the government, who reviewed his file and told him, ‘Your file is clear. Come back, you can come back to your country,’” she said.
He arrived in Beirut in mid-September, along with his wife and two of his daughters.
Security officials held onto his passport for a routine check and let him go. When he returned about a week later to retrieve it, a newspaper close to the militant Hezbollah group published a story accusing him of playing a role in the torture of inmates at the former Khiam prison. He was arrested a day after it appeared.
Scores of protesters outside a military court connected to Fakhoury’s case carried signs dubbing him the “butcher of Khiam”; some demanded he get the death penalty. A sign said “Just one bullet,” on a family picture, the daughters said, adding that they’ve received death threats online.
Fakhoury’s family and lawyer said he worked at the prison from 1989 to 1996. He handled paperwork, cleaned the prison and made sure inmates got their food.
“There’s no legal basis for his arrest,” Atallah said. “There’s no legal basis for his detention. … He’s an American citizen, an innocent American citizen who’s being illegally detained.”
Given the current instability in Lebanon, it was unclear who could address Fakhoury’s case. Before the mass anti-government protests started, the Lebanese General Security Directorate said Fakhoury had possessed an Israeli passport. But Atallah said U.S. records show he didn’t have one. Lebanon’s laws prevent its citizens from dealing with or making any contacts with Israel.
Fakhoury’s family said they are working with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. They also wrote to the White House but haven’t received a response. The White House referred questions on Fakhoury’s case to the State Department.
Fakhoury’s wife visits him and the daughters received a brief phone call from him during which he asked about his granddaughter and began to cry.
“It’s just such a sad time,” daughter Macy Fakhoury said. “The holidays are coming and both of my parents aren’t here.”
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.