This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.
Far from the daily protests in Syria calling for an end to the 40-year regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, a group of mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters in downtown Beirut, Lebanon have held a permanent sit-in in a small tent since April 2005, calling for the return of their loved ones from Syria. In all weather, they have asserted their right to know the fate of husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers who disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War, which was followed by a post-war occupation by Syria. Some have been missing for more than 30 years.
President Assad issued a general amnesty for political prisoners in Syria in May 2011, but it begs the question whether it extends to Lebanese political prisoners and the disappeared in Syrian jails. What will happen to them amidst the current political turmoil in Syria? Are there reasons to be optimistic should a wind of change hit Damascus?
This issue has had shy representation in the blogosphere and citizen media scene. It consists mainly of Facebook Groups or pages updated regularly with news and developments such as Assad Free the Lebanese detainees in Syria and Save the Lebanese Detainees in Syria and Families of Lebanese Victims of Enforced Disappearance in Syria, or the Cause.com page Lebanese Political Detainees in Syrian Prisons.
There are also a few blog posts like this one written by Elie Fares from Lebanon, who writes on his blog A Separate State of Mind on March 16:
Lebanese detainees in Syrian prisons are treated like less than human beings. One of the few who got out alive is a school teacher from Tripoli who told about her torture through a process called the “tire” (Douleib). They basically put her inside a tire and hit her with electric cords, not caring where the cords slammed her. Her eye was hit and it erupted like an egg in a frying pan. They did not care. They kept on hitting her.
So today, I plead to the humanitarian side of those who still have it. It looks like the political party who has the means to help doesn’t care at all. Therefore, I hope with all my heart that something comes out of the Syrian protests that would lead to some closure for the families of the Lebanese detainees and hopefully a new page in the story of the Lebanon-Syria relationship where we are seen as equals and not a province that wasn’t.
Another post from Egyptian Ahmed Hegab on June 2 entitled “Why doesn't anyone speak of Lebanese Detainees in Syria?” says:
عندما قرأت خبر العفو عن المعتقلين تخيلت و لو للحظه ان كلمة المعتقلين تضم المعتقليين اللبنانيين فى السجون السوريه !!!! الجيش السورى قبض على المئات فى سوريا قدر عددهم الرسمى 650 أسير لبنانى , أكاد أشك فى الرقم ! ولا أحسب هنا عدد المفقودين اثناء الإحتلال السورى للبنان , أكاد افهم صبر الناشطين و الحقوقيين فى لبنان حيث الدعم الأعلامى من حزب الله للنظام السورى و الإرهاب الفكرى للبنانيين فى أن يتكلم أحدهم عن النظام السورى و التضييق على اي فعاليات تدعم الثورة السوريه , لكن عن تجربتنا فى مصر اقول لكم ان النظام السوري سينهار ان عاجلا او أجلا , أبحثوا عن أسراكم و أضغطوا على الجامعة العربية , أضغطوا على المجتمع الدولى فالنظام السورى الأن على إستعداد ان يقدم اي تنازلات حتى لا يسقط
In light of these recent events and to avoid this issue sinking into oblivion, I interviewed Wadih Al Asmar, Secretary General of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights – CLDH (also available on Facebook and on Twitter ).
Thalia Rahme: What are the latest developments concerning the situation of Lebanese detainees and victims of enforced disappearance in Syria, especially amidst the unrest that is raging in the country?
Wadih al Asmar: The situation in Syria is quite critical, uncertain and confusing, and this naturally reflects upon the situation of the Lebanese who are missing there. Actually all hinges on the fate of the Bashar el Assad regime and Syria in general. Will Bashar, stay or leave? In case there is a change in the regime, will there be a general amnesty or will there be a vindictive act? Should Bashar remain in power will he proceed to reforms? So our feelings are kind of mixed between doubt, fear and hope. What gives hope, and I am being cynical here, is unfortunately the fact, that we are witnessing in Syria itself forced disappearances, people who are arrested then released… So maybe once everything is clearer, this case will be addressed from a broader angle. Dialogue with Syrian authorities should be resumed. The problem is which Syrian authorities?
TR: What are the organizations concerned with this issue doing in this regard?
W A-A: Actually there are three other bodies active for this cause: Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), The Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Missing People in Lebanon, The Committee of Families of Lebanese Detained in Syria, and CLDH. We have been working closely for dozens of years, with the same objective and under one strategy. We have files proving the existence of Lebanese in Syrian jails (aside from those tried following a felony or a crime) and we have a strategy and mechanisms to act… What we lack is an official cover, since Syria is refusing to collaborate with us.
There is a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee, tasked with handling this case since May 2005. Unfortunately, it is very inefficient, mainly from the Lebanese side who keeps reiterating the Syrian position, which is to deny any detentions, despite all evidence.
So what we demand is an official status to be able to initiate a dialogue with the Syrians who would have no choice but to recognize us. In this case, regardless of the regime in Syria and the forces in power, we will be able to take some action. It should take the form of an official Lebanese commission that can follow the cases of all reportedly missing Lebanese, wherever they are: Syria, Israel, Libya, Lebanon …. anywhere in the world
TR: How is the current Lebanese-Syrian commission ineffective?
W A-A: I will give you an example. Whenever we have sufficient proof about a detainee, we report to the Lebanese side, which turns to the Syrian one. Syria denies the existence of that person on their territory and the story stops here. No more action is done.
Once we highlighted the case of a woman, who it was said, had been executed. As usual Syria refused to admit that. Upon our persistence, the Lebanese contacted their Syrian counterparts again, who changed their story and stated that indeed the women is in Syria and that she was about to be hanged, but at the last moment, the verdict was canceled. Now the question is: Where is the woman ? No answer, of course.
TR: Recently President Assad issued an act of grace granting all political prisoners an amnesty. Are Lebanese included in this pardon?
W A-A: We have several categories of people held in Syria. 1) Those who committed crimes in Syrian territories and have been tried accordingly. We are not concerned with them in terms of disappearances, but of course still in terms of human rights. 2) Those who didn’t commit crimes but were arrested in Syria for political reasons and sentenced there. What we can do in this case is assign them a lawyer and do our best to ensure a fair trial. 3) Those who were kidnapped by Syrian or Lebanese militia or state bodies in Lebanon and brought to Syria for political or whatever reasons, those are a major part of our lists. Unfortunately, the amnesty only included the second category and only 2 persons were released from a list of 120.
TR: How or did you as human rights organizations resort to social media to track prisoners and collect data?
W A-A: We have used the internet for more than 10 years in order to raise awareness about human rights issues and especially about the enforced disappearance issue. The social media is definitely helping us to be more frequently in contact with some families, mainly those who are abroad.
TR: How do you think organizations advocating for victims of enforced disappearance can benefit from social media to highlight and raise awareness of their cause?
W A-A: Mainly by increasing the audience of people who are aware and motivated to support them within the complicated and so humanitarian issue.
TR: What are your future action in this regard?:
W A-A: We have been working with previous governments and we are still working with this one to reach a solution. We hope to attain a concrete result very soon.
The most recent event co-organized by the CLDH was on September 3. It was an art exhibition and a Rally Paper entitled “The Tent Unites Us” near the families’ sit-in to encourage youth and mobilize them.
This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.