Renewed hope for Lebanese detainees languishing in Syria
SYRIAN Intelligence Says beirut must take up case
By Rym Ghazal -Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 12, 2005
DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: A first crack in the case of Lebanese detained in Syrian jails came unexpectedly last week with the first ever admission by a prominent Syrian authority of the existence of jailed Lebanese "terrorists" in Syria, prompting Lebanese authorities to speak out in support of this case.
"Whatever crimes the Lebanese detainees have committed, they have committed them on Lebanese soil and hence should be prosecuted by Lebanese authority in Lebanon according to Lebanese law," said Batroun MP Butros Harb, one of the latest opposition members to join the tide of ongoing protests by relatives of Lebanese detainees asking for the release of their loved ones, dead or alive.
Harb added: "The Syrian position on this case has been strange, for it went from full denials of the existence of any detainees to the release of a few prisoners detained for what they called political reasons to a full admission of the existence to this day of Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails," referring to a statement made by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari during an interview published in the Madrid daily El Pais last Wednesday in which he described the detained as "terrorists."
In the interview, the Syrian Premier said: "These people were fighting alongside Israel and killed Syrian soldiers. Obviously they were punished, like terrorists in Spain or other countries."
Otari's comments coincided with a visit by Lebanese Premier Najib Mikati to Syria, where the issue of Lebanese detainees was one of many discussed with Syrian President Bashar Assad, leading to the announcement of the formation of a joint committee to look into the question of Lebanese prisoners in Syria.
Otari said the detainees were members of the disbanded South Lebanon Army, headed during the 1975-1990 civil war by General Antoine Lahd and which cooperated with the Israeli Army during the latter's occupation of South Lebanon.
Declining to provide the number of such prisoners held, he added: "It is a question going back 25 to 30 years during the civil war." In the hope of interviewing Lebanese detainees, Daily Star traveled to the infamous Tadmur prison in Syria, but was told outside the institution by a high-ranking Syrian official: "There are no prisoners in Tadmur jail, Syrian or Lebanese. The jail has been emptied." Another Syrian intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "There are less than 100 Lebanese detained in different Syrian jails, charged for working with Israel."
He added: "I feel very sad for the Lebanese families asking for their jailed relatives as it is really in the hands of their own government, not ours, to deal with this issue." Fouad Saad, a former minister of state for administrative development who has dealt personally with the file, agreed the matter is "literally" in the hands of the Lebanese government, saying officials in Beirut have a complete file on the status of the detainees and it is just a matter of them "taking action."
He added: "It is as if they are all scared of this issue and are ignoring this file. It is really time for them to take responsibility for this case and start asking the Syrian or even Israeli government about this list of missing Lebanese during the civil war. It is not fair to keep these families waiting for relatives that might have been long time killed during the war."
As the issue continues to be debated by politicians on both sides of the border, the relatives of the missing detainees, along with the lobby group SOLIDE (Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile), remain firm on their demand for the release of their loved ones, calling for UN intervention. "We are just waiting to hear from Kofi Annan as we lost faith in our government to do anything about the Lebanese detained in Syria," said Ghazi Aad, head of SOLIDE, who is at least pleased the matter is finally receiving attention from Lebanese politicians.
He said: "It is just a matter of time and faith. We waited for so many years; we can wait for a few weeks."