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Protesters carry banners outside a military court during the hearing for Amer al-Fakhoury, in Beirut, Lebanon September 17...

U.S. citizen accused of human rights violations freed in Lebanon

CONCORD, N.H. — A U.S. citizen who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon has been freed, a senator who had pushed for his release announced Thursday.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a statement that she had spoken with Amer Fakhoury on the phone soon after his release, and that he was on his way to the United States.

Lebanese officials alleged that Fakhoury was responsible for the killings and abuse of prisoners in Lebanon as part of an Israeli-backed militia two decades ago. Fakoury denied the allegations. The 57-year-old restaurant owner who was living in New Hampshire had been jailed since September.

His 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.

READ MORE: Diplomats question why U.S. military aid to Lebanon is being withheld

“Anytime a U.S citizen is wrongfully detained by a foreign government, we must use every tool at our disposal to free them,” Shaheen said in her statement. “I’m very glad that Amer is finally coming home and will be reunited with his family. No family should have to go through what the Fakhoury family has gone through.”

His oldest daughter, Guila Fakhoury, told The Associated Press by phone, “We are so happy. It’s a dream.”

Fakhoury was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma and had been hospitalized in Lebanon. President Donald Trump said in a news conference Thursday that Fakhoury “will now be able to receive the much needed care and treatment in the United States.”

“We’ve been working very hard to get him freed, and he’s finally able to have his entire family at his side,” Trump said.

Hours before Shaheen announced Fakhoury’s release, a U.S. Marine Osprey was seen taking off from the U.S. Embassy compound northeast of Beirut.

Fakhoury was ordered to be released Monday because more than 10 years had passed since he allegedly tortured prisoners at a jail run by the South Lebanon Army militia. But he was not immediately allowed to leave the country after a Lebanese military judge on Tuesday appealed the decision, asking a military tribunal to strike down the decision to free Fakhoury.

A judge of urgent matters in the southern town of Nabatiyeh issued a ruling preventing Fakhoury from leaving Lebanon for two months. Judge Ahmad Mezher’s decision came after a request filed by former inmates.

The parliamentary bloc of Hezbollah criticized the military tribunal for what it called “succumbing” to U.S. demands to release Fakhoury, describing him as “an agent who betrayed his country.” Hezbollah lawmakers called on concerned authorities to hold the tribunal accountable

Fakhoury is a former SLA member who became a U.S. citizen last year. His case has been closely followed in New Hampshire, where Shaheen and other officials have called for imposing sanctions on Lebanon to pressure Beirut to release him.

Fakhoury was jailed last year after returning to Lebanon on vacation to visit family. Lebanon’s intelligence service said he confessed during questioning to being a warden at Khiam Prison, which was run by the SLA during Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Human rights groups have described the prison as a center for torture.

Fakhoury’s family and lawyer, however, said he had no direct contact with inmates and was never involved in any interrogation or torture.

Fakhoury’s family said in a statement they have been through a nightmare “that we would never wish on anyone.” They thanked Trump and members of his administration and said Fakhoury “considers Shaheen his hero.”

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 SLA members received after Israel ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2000.

Fakhoury was formally charged in February by a military judge with the murder and torture of inmates at Khiam Prison.

Mohammed Ramadan, a former prisoner who spent seven years in the Khiam prison, protested the freeing of Fakhoury, saying the Lebanese judiciary has let down hundreds of former prisoners and their families.

“We had left the matter to the Lebanese judiciary. Now it has let us down,” he said.

Lee and Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.