United States Lebanon American FreedFILE - IN this Thursday, March 19, 2020 file photo, a U.S. Marine Osprey is seen taking off from the U.S. Embassy in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon. The aircraft took off a few hours before a U.S. senator announced that Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury, who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon, was freed from a prison in Lebanon. Lebanon's official National News Agency on Friday said Foreign Minister Nasif Hitti sought an explanation from Ambassador Dorothy Shea for the circumstances of Fakhoury's leaving the country. (AP Photo/Zeina Karam)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's foreign minister summoned the U.S. ambassador Friday after an American on trial in Beirut was taken out of the country by a U.S. warplane — a move that the powerful militant group Hezbollah called a “blatant violation” of Lebanese sovereignty and laws.
The Lebanese-American man, Amer Fakhoury, was ordered released Monday by a judge in Lebanon because more than 10 years had passed since he allegedly tortured prisoners at a jail run by an Israel-backed Lebanese militia. Fakhoury has denied the charges.
Another military tribunal contested the release a day later, banning Fakhoury from leaving the country until its appeal was heard.
But Fakhoury was transferred on Thursday amid unclear circumstances, and U.S. officials later confirmed that he was aboard a U.S. Marine V-22 Osprey seen taking off from the U.S. Embassy compound northeast of Beirut. The officials said he was being returned to the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump thanked the Lebanese government for working with his administration to release Fakhoury, further muddying the waters over the circumstances of his removal from the country, which has come under strong criticism in Lebanon.
Lebanon's official National News Agency said Foreign Minister Nasif Hitti sought an explanation from U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea for the circumstances of Fakhoury's exit.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sought to distance himself and his group from the decision to let Fakhoury leave. He said Hezbollah was incorrectly and unfairly criticized in Lebanon for letting it happen.
Nasrallah said there was no deal made to secure the release of Fakhoury, adding that numerous Lebanese politicians, judges and security and military figures had come under intense U.S. pressure to release him, including some who he alleged were threatened with sanctions.
Nasrallah didn't name those who were pressured but said that when he was asked internally and privately about how to respond to the pressure, he said it was not proper to “succumb to such pressure” because it would open the door for more U.S. interference in domestic affairs.
Nasrallah said he learned of the tribunal's decision to release Fakhoury from the media. He added that Lebanese security forces at the country's airport had subsequently declined to allow Fakhoury to leave through Beirut International Airport because of the pending appeal over his release.
“The smuggling happened from the embassy (in northeast Beirut) in that manner that you saw, a blatant violation of the Lebanese sovereignty, the Lebanese judiciary and the Lebanese law,” Nasrallah said in an 80-minute televised speech, more than half of which was devoted to the matter.
Nasrallah said he supports an investigation into the issue to determine responsibility.
Fakhoury's case had put a significant strain on already troubled ties between the U.S. and Lebanon. Lawmakers in Washington had threatened to withhold critical aid to the country and impose sanctions on the Lebanese military, which is seen by the Trump administration as a bulwark against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.
Fakhoury, a New Hampshire restaurant owner who received U.S. citizenship last year, had been imprisoned in Lebanon since September, when he returned to visit family. Fakhoury was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma and had been hospitalized in Lebanon.
A senior US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said there was no deal made to secure Fakhoury's release. The official ruled out the possibility that a promise was made to send aid or to release Lebanese prisoners held in the U.S.
The official also denied Washington is in talks with Hezbollah. A Lebanese businessman accused of financing Hezbollah has been serving a five-year sentence in the U.S. since 2018.
The U.S. official said Fakhoury's release was ensured by “competent judicial authorities," adding that Fakhoury was “wrongfully” detained.
Fakhoury was a member of the Israel-backed militia known as the South Lebanon Army and had been accused of torturing prisoners at a jail run by the militia during Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. His family and lawyer say that while he did work at the prison, he did not have any contact with inmates.
Former inmates at Khiam prison, where Fakhoury was allegedly a warden until Israel withdrew in 2000, protested the decision to free him.
On Friday, representatives of the former prisoners filed a case before prosecutors to investigate who was responsible for violating the travel ban on Fakhoury.
Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. Lebanon bans its citizens from traveling to Israel or having contact with Israelis.
Fakhoury’s lawyer and family say he fled Lebanon in 2001 through Israel and eventually to the United States because of death threats he and many other members of the South Lebanon Army received after Israel ended its occupation.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.