Open letter to Syrian President Hafez al-Asad
Human Rights Watch
18 March 1998

350 5th Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, New York 10118
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18 March 1998

His Excellency Hafez al-Asad
President of the Syrian Arab Republic
Damascus, Syria

Your Excellency:

Human Rights Watch welcomes the release earlier this month of 121 Lebanese citizens who had been imprisoned in Syria under unclear legal circumstances, without official acknowledgment of their detention or whereabouts. Since 1996, our organization has worked to bring the serious matter of "disappearances" in Lebanon to the attention of Lebanese and Syrian authorities as well as the international community.

While we share the happiness of the families whose relatives were recently returned to Lebanon, we are nevertheless troubled because an unknown number of Lebanese, stateless Palestinians, and other foreign nationals remain in detention in Syria, outside the protection of the law. We appeal to Your Excellency to instruct Syrian authorities to provide the names of all these persons and disclose publicly the full details of their cases. Those determined to have been detained illegally should be immediately and unconditionally released. In addition, Human Rights Watch urges that the Syrian government undertake specific measures, as required by international human rights law, to ensure that in the future no individual arrested or detained by Syrian security forces -- in Lebanon, in Syria, or elsewhere -- is placed outside the protection of the law.

Following the recent releases, the Paris-based nongovernmental organization SOLIDA (Soutien aux Libanais Détenus Arbitrairement) listed the names of fifty-six Lebanese whom it believes are held in Syria, including two priests, Suleiman Abi Khalil and Albert Sharfane, both of whom "disappeared" in October 1990. (These fifty-six names were published in the Lebanese daily newspaper L'Orient Le Jour on March 9, 1998.) One of the fifty-six is Boutros Khawand, whose case Human Rights Watch has followed closely. Mr. Khawand, a well-known and influential member of the political bureau of the Phalange party, was abducted near his home in the Sin al-Fil neighborhood of Beirut by a group of men in civilian clothes on the morning of September 15, 1992. Until now, Mr. Khawand's family has been unable to obtain information from Lebanese or Syrian authorities about his whereabouts or legal status, although the family has received various unofficial assurances that he is alive and detained in Syria. Human Rights Watch also notes that the number of Lebanese held in Syria in all likelihood exceeds the fifty-six persons named by SOLIDA. The organization informed us recently that it has the names of scores of other "disappeared" Lebanese who may be imprisoned in Syria, but that documentation of these cases lacks the currency of the fifty-six cases noted above.

Official confirmation of the number of foreign nationals and stateless Palestinians detained in Syria is long overdue and urgently required. While the releases this month were an important step forward, the continuing lack of information about those who were not released is extremely troubling and prolongs the agony of families who do not know if their relatives are dead or alive. Human Rights Watch therefore again calls upon the Syrian government to disclose the names and whereabouts of all non-Syrians who currently are being held in prisons and detention centers in Syria, and to grant them immediate access to family members and lawyers. For each individual, the following information should also be made public:

Human Rights Watch further urges that the Syrian government ensure that "disappearances" do not occur in the future and that no one -- whether Syrian citizens or foreign nationals -- is subjected to unlawful detention or held outside the protection of the law. We therefore recommend that the following five steps be taken immediately:


/original signed/
Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

His Excellency Walid al-Moualem
Ambassador, Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, Washington, D.C.