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BEIRUT – Back in Syria, the young women were told they would get well-paid jobs at restaurants and hotels in Lebanon. But when they arrived, their belongings and mobile phones were taken away, and the women were locked up in two hotels north of Beirut and forced into prostitution.
What followed was an ordeal of beatings, torture and abuse — until Lebanese security forces raided the hotels and dismantled the operation in late March.
The discovery of the sex trafficking ring and the rescue of the women deeply shocked tiny Lebanon, a Mediterranean Arab nation already overwhelmed by the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war, and prompted calls for investigation.
The case, which involves 75 female victims, is considered the worst sex trafficking scandal in Lebanon in decades and has raised questions about who might have shielded and enabled such a vast network.
When they were found in the Chez Maurice and Silver Hotel in the town of Maamelteine, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Lebanese capital, the women were said to have been in miserable condition. The three-story Chez Maurice looked more like a jail than a hotel when it was recently visited by an Associated Press crew, with bars on balconies and windows.
A whip was seen lying on one of the guard tables. The premises have been sealed off and official documents were stamped on the gates, barring entry.
The Syrian women were brought to Lebanon in stages over the past several months. Those who refused to work as prostitutes were repeatedly raped and tortured until they submitted, according to Lebanese women's rights activists.
"Some reported that they were forced to have sex with 20 clients per day," said Maya al-Ammar, an official with women's rights group Kafa, which is Arabic for "Enough."
After the women were freed, the Health Ministry sealed a clinic belonging to gynecologist Riad al-Alam, who authorities say was involved in preforming abortions for trafficked Syrian women who got pregnant.
Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said the doctor "should be in prison where he should rot." Al-Alam's license has been revoked by a medical workers' union.
Al-Ammar, the women's rights activist, said some 200 abortions were carried out at the clinic, though she did not provide the source for the data.
The case of the trafficked Syrians went public after police raided the two hotels and freed the women. Lebanese police spokesman Col. Joseph Msalem said several guards, both male and female, were detained but the two ringleaders remain at large.
According to Msalem, police got the first lead on March 25, the Good Friday holiday in Lebanon, when four Syrian women managed to flee from one of the hotels when the guards briefly became lax in monitoring them.
They took a minibus to an area in south Beirut, where one of them told the bus driver that she knew some people. On the way, the driver noticed something odd about the women and started asking questions after which they told him their story, Msalem said.
The driver called the police and the women were taken to a police station near Beirut.
Police then started monitoring the hotels and on March 27 stormed the two buildings, detaining eight guards and setting the women free. After being questioned by police, some women left on their own while 35 decided to go to women's shelters where they have been getting psychological treatment, according to Msalem and al-Ammar.
Although Lebanon is one of the least conservative countries in the Arab world, prostitution is illegal, and foreigners can be deported for engaging in it. But the implementation of the law has been lax.
"Syrian refugee men, women, and children in Lebanon are at risk of sex trafficking," said a U.S. State Department report issued last year. "Syrian girls are brought to Lebanon for prostitution, sometimes through the guise of early marriage."
The AP was not allowed to interview any of the victims, and was told by non-government organizations helping the women that they are still in treatment and would prefer not to talk for fear of the ringleaders, who are still at large.
Sandy Issa, a Lebanese investigative journalist who was able to interview some of the 75 victims, said their stories were like "something out of a horror movie."
The traffickers exploited personal tragedies back in Syria, such as the death of a parent, promising a victim she would have a "respected job" and a "decent salary," Issa said.
The women recounted how they could not go outside the building, "unless they were getting out for an abortion," Issa added. "The prostitution was obligatory."
Lebanese security officials, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case, estimate the gang was making more than a $1 million a month from the prostitution ring.
After leading Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt suggested someone in the police might have been involved in protecting the ring, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk ordered an investigation.
Last Saturday, dozens of Lebanese rallied outside the Ministry of Justice in Beirut, demanding that those behind the trafficking be brought to justice and punished.
"We came here to say that we won't allow this to happen," said one of the protesters, who would not give her name, fearing repercussions from the authorities. "Bring all these criminals to justice!"
Associated Press Writer Maeva Bambuck contributed to this report from Beirut.