Dozens of Lebanese political prisoners still held in Syrian jails
Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The last time Sonia Eid saw her son Jihad was 14 years ago, when she watched from a distance as the Lebanese army corporal, blindfolded and bound to a line of other prisoners, was led into interrogation at Syria's notorious Mazzeh prison. He is just one of dozens of Lebanese who human rights groups say are still being held as political prisoners in Syrian jails, something Syria's government denies.
Eid said her son was 20 when he was captured by the Syrian army on Oct. 13, 1990, the day that Lebanon's long civil war ended as Syrian troops crushed the forces of former Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun, who controlled some Christian areas east of Beirut.
The next year, she visited Mazzeh and saw her son taken off for questioning. She hasn't seen him since. "As I looked, one of those bound (prisoners) fell to the ground. Seconds later he was brutally beaten and kicked. I fainted," said Eid, who heads a parents committee for Lebanese held in Syria.
Holding a black-and-white photo of her son, she says she has a good idea where he is: "Now our information shows he is in Saidnaya," a prison near Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The Syrian regime and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government led by President Emile Lahoud deny anyone from Lebanon is in a Syrian jail, saying 46 Lebanese freed in December 2000 were the last batch.
However, when Syrian authorities released 55 political prisoners last month, mostly members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, there were two Lebanese among them. The presence of Lebanese detainees inside Syria was asserted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a report it issued in November 2003.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has closed the Mazzeh prison and ordered the release of many political prisoners since succeeding his late father in 2000, but reports have said some of the detainees were transferred to the Saidnaya prison.
Human rights groups and families say they have evidence of at least 176 Lebanese in Syrian jails, many of whom have been there for more than a decade. The list includes dozens of soldiers, two Maronite Christian monks and at least one politician.
Kamal el-Batal, director of Mirsad, a human rights group in Beirut, said he has files of hundreds of detainees but wouldn't give a figure. Naamatallah Abi Nasr, an opposition legislator on the Lebanese parliament's human rights committee, also disputed Syria's denial. "I know there are prisoners, but we don't know how many," he said.
After the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing in Beirut, street protests and international pressure forced Assad's regime to pull back Syrian troops and intelligence agents based in Lebanon to the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border.
Families of detainees hope the changes sweeping the region will lead to a speedy release of their loved ones, but an activist worries about their fate since Syria does not admit holding them.
"We are asking about detainees, but we are scared," said Ghazi Aad, director of the group Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile. "The Syrian regime is a twin brother of the (former) Iraqi regime and might take a step by getting rid of them."
International human rights groups say hundreds of Lebanese have been taken to Syria since it first sent troops into Lebanon in 1976. The detainees were from various Muslim and Christian sects and different political factions, from right-wing Christians to Muslim extremists, they say.
Arrests in the 1980s by Syrian military intelligence were common, but that has sharply dropped since the end of civil war. People were snatched for anti-Syrian activity or for belonging to groups that disagreed with Syrian policy. Others were taken for allegedly working for Syria's enemy, Israel, or for simply falling off with the local Syrian commander or being framed by political foes and even family.
Hashem Minqara, a militant Sunni Muslim leader from the northern city of Tripoli, spent 14 years in Syrian prisons before returning to Lebanon in 2000 and starting a new career as a pro-Syrian politician. Minqara did not want to discuss the prisoner issue, his spokesman Sheik Ibrahim al-Saleh said. "He can speak about the present and future, but the past is history," al-Saleh said. The families are hopeful they'll hear good news soon.
"A solution is near and this is what is making me happy," said Eid, sipping coffee in her house in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut. "It is a dream that I have been waiting for 15 years. My life has been a tragedy for the past 15 years."