"Lebanese Detained in Syria"

Human Rights Watch Press Release

26 January 1998

Attached is a letter that the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch sent today to French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, on the occasion in France (January 26-February 1) of the Week of Action and Support for Lebanese Detainees in Syrian Prisons.

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26 January 1998

His Excellency Hubert Vedrine
Foreign Minister
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Paris, France

Your Excellency:

I am writing on the occasion of the "Week of Action and Support for Lebanese Detainees in Syrian Prisons" in France from January 26 to February 1, 1998. Human Rights Watch applauds this important initiative by Lebanese and French human rights activists and organizations. It is our hope that this effort will focus the attention of your government, which has a close bilateral relationship with Syria, on the need to bring to an end the continuing problem of "disappearances" in Lebanon at the hands of Syrian security forces.

The humanitarian dimension of the problem is particularly troubling. While some families have learned through unofficial channels of the whereabouts of their relatives, and have even visited them in detention, other families have had no contact or news, and do not know if their loved ones are dead or alive.

In a report that Human Rights Watch issued in May 1997, entitled "An Alliance Beyond the Law: Enforced Disappearances in Lebanon," we urged the Syrian government to bring this unconscionable practice to an end by disclosing the names of all non-Syrians who are detained in Syria and revealing where they are currently being held. We further recommended that the government provide information about the legal basis for the imprisonment of these individuals, and that it release immediately and unconditionally all those who have been unlawfully or arbitrarily detained.

Between 1995 and 1997, Human Rights Watch documented cases of "disappearances" in Lebanon, which included stateless Palestinians as well as Lebanese citizens. In all cases, Syrian security forces, sometimes with the support and cooperation of their Lebanese counterparts, took individuals into their custody on Lebanese soil and transferred them to Syria. Family members and lawyers were unable to obtain any form of official acknowledgment from Lebanese or Syrian authorities about these arrests or abductions, or the whereabouts of those who were "disappeared," placing these persons outside the protection of the law. Lebanese government officials have either publicly professed ignorance of the problem or privately acknowledged to family members that they are powerless to address it.

Human Rights Watch respectfully urges the French government to raise formally with Syrian authorities, at the highest levels and as an urgent matter, the unacknowledged detention of non-Syrian nationals in Syria. As well as urging the disclosure of the names and whereabouts of these detainees, the French government should also seek a commitment from the Syrian government to cease this practice immediately. We further recommend that the Syrian government be encouraged to adopt the following five measures to ensure that in the future no one will be subjected to "disappearance" or arbitrary arrest:

  1. Communicate to all Syrian military, intelligence and security forces that _"disappearances" will no longer be tolerated, and that commanders who order or condone such actions will be held responsible for these criminal offenses to the fullest extent of the law.
  2. Require that at the time of arrest or detention, the arresting authorities identify themselves, and that all individuals take into custody be held only in publicly recognized detention facilities, where accurate registers of detainees and prisoners are maintained and available for public inspection. Such procedures should be instituted at each of the now-secret Syrian detention facilities in Lebanon. Alternatively, these centers should be closed.
  3. Inform individuals taken into custody of the reasons for arrest, and enable them to challenge the legality of their detention before an independent judicial authority.
  4. Permit individuals taken into custody to inform without delay their relatives and lawyers of their arrest and place of detention, and to receive visits from them.
  5. Establish effective procedures for prompt response to inquiries from families, lawyers and nongovernmental organizations about the whereabouts of individuals who have been detained.

Thank you in advance for your attention to our concerns, and I look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.


Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch