Families of missing detainees in Syrian prisons demand action

Families of detainees missing in Syrian prisons have gathered every day for more than two years to protest in front of the UN building in Beirut. (Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 24 April 2007 (IRIN) - Lebanese activists are calling on the United Nations and the Lebanese government to increase pressure on Damascus to release final details of the whereabouts and fate of more than 600 Lebanese missing in Syrian jails since the 1970s.

As a sit-in protest in front of UN House in Beirut by the families of the missing detainees enters its third year, activists are calling on the UN to consider the missing prisoner cases as part of the implementation of a series of Security Council resolutions that have demanded Syria respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.

“Just as the UN is investigating all the assassinations in Lebanon since the killing of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri, so we should have an independent international investigation into the cases of the missing prisoners,” Ghazi Aad, chairman of Lebanese NGO Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile, or ‘Solide’, told IRIN.

“This issue is beyond the Lebanese authorities and they have failed to do their duty towards their citizens.”

An estimated 17,000 people went missing over the course of Lebanon’s ruinous, 15-year-long civil war, in which Syria intervened in 1976 - a year after the war began - becoming de facto ruler of the country after the war’s end in 1990.

Since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon under UN resolution 1559 in April 2005, Solide has registered 643 prisoners believed to have disappeared in Syrian jails.

Aad and other activists are urging the UN to consider Syria’s implementation of 1559 - which called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon - to be incomplete until Damascus provides details of missing Lebanese prisoners it is believed to be holding.

In the past, Syrian-controlled Lebanese governments denied the existence of Lebanese prisoners in Syria. In 1995, Beirut even issued a law declaring anyone who disappeared during the civil war as officially dead.

Syria has also denied on several occasions having Lebanese detainees in its prisons. But in 2000, it released a number of Lebanese captives several years after their abductions from Lebanon.

‘Hurry up’

In the last picture Violette Nassif has of her son Johnny, he is wearing a sweater that reads simply: ‘Hurry up’.

The image has haunted her for the 17 years that have passed since the young corporal in the Lebanese army was taken to a prison in Damascus, along with an estimated 150 other soldiers, after Syria defeated the Lebanese army in 1990.

Tears stream down Violette’s face as she recalls her years of desperate effort to first find out if her son, who would now be 34, is still alive, and then to try and bring him home to Lebanon.

“After Johnny disappeared in 1990, I looked for him in morgues, in hospitals and in prisons for weeks. Finally, some friends in Syria told me he had been transferred to Damascus,” said Violette, standing outside UN House in Beirut.

The now elderly mother said that in November 1990, a month after her son’s disappearance, a Lebanese army officer gave her a telegram stating that Johnny and five others Lebanese were not dead, but that they had indeed been imprisoned in Syria.

Four years later, Violette at last managed to visit her son in Damascus’ central prison. Two years later, she saw him again for the last time. But in 2001, a Lebanese detainee released from Syria told Violette that he had been in the same prison as Johnny and that her son was still alive.

That hope keeps Violette going through her daily sit-in, demanding news that never comes.

“The government has abandoned us so we must have an independent international investigation. We have been in this camp for two years now. Are they waiting for us to die as well? How can they not bother to search for their missing soldiers?” she asked.

Syrian officials have said they would launch their own investigation into the whereabouts of nearly 800 Syrians they say have disappeared in Lebanon.

“The Lebanese crimes against Syrian citizens were mostly motivated by political hatred, with an aim to divide Lebanon into smaller states loyal to Israeli governments,” Syrian MP Faysal Kalthoum, who heads the National Committee for Syrian Disappeared in Lebanon, told the state-run Tishreen newspaper last year.

Lebanese MP and member of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Ghassan Mkheyber said last week the committee would investigate all the cases of Lebanese who have gone missing in Syria, Israel and Libya.

“It’s about time we all came around to this humanitarian and moral issue so that we can uncover the truth about who’s still alive and who’s not,” he told IRIN.

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