Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 1 Table of Contents
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January 2001 

Syria and the Politics of Arbitrary Detention in Lebanon
by Gary C. Gambill

Relatives of Lebanese detainees remaining in Syria hold a demonstration on December 13 [Al-Nahar]
Syrian President Bashar Assad's decision last month to release 46 Lebanese detainees was hailed by Lebanon's pro-Syrian political establishment as a gracious gesture and giant leap forward in relations between the two countries, but Lebanese and international human rights groups contend that many hundreds of Lebanese remain illegally detained in Syrian prisons.

While the release is certainly welcome news to relatives and friends of the lucky few handpicked by the Assad regime to return to their homeland, its limited scope constitutes a continuation of Syria's "detain and release" method of intimidating the Lebanese population and silencing its political opponents. The release excluded all Lebanese POW's captured while resisting Syria's October 1990 ouster of former prime minister Michel Aoun, the country's leading opposition figure--a conspicuous omission that many Lebanese interpret as a veiled threat: those who continue to vocally oppose the Syrian presence in Lebanon will not be the beneficiaries of "mercy" from the new Syrian president.


Over the last twenty-five years, many thousands of Lebanese have been abducted by Syrian military and intelligence forces operating in Lebanon, an unknown number of whom still remain imprisoned in detention centers in and around Damascus. The circumstances behind the abductions are as varied as the political, religious, and ethnic identities of the detainees. Many were arrested for engaging in armed insurrection against Syrian forces or peacefully voicing their opposition to Syrian hegemony (the Syrians make little distinction between the two). Some were kidnapped because of their alleged ties to Israel, others because of their ties to Syrian officials who fell into disfavor. Many, however, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victims of arbitrary detentions by Syrian intelligence designed to attract new recruits to its vast network of local informants (an offer that, under the circumstances, can be very difficult and painful to refuse).

Human rights officials usually group the detainees into four categories. The first consists of people abducted by Syrian forces during the 1975-1990 civil war. The second group is comprised of around 150 soldiers who were taken prisoner when Syrian forces ousted Aoun on October 13, 1990. The third category includes those who were kidnapped by pro-Syrian militias and turned over to Damascus when the militias disarmed in 1991-1992, while the fourth consists of those who have been kidnapped by Syrian intelligence since 1992.

A succession of Syrian-installed regimes that have controlled the country since 1990 have ceded virtually complete authority to Syrian intelligence forces operating in Lebanon. While the so-called "Treaty of Fraternity, Coordination and Cooperation" signed by pro-Syrian Lebanese officials in 1991 obliges Lebanon to protect Syrian security interests, there are no laws which accord to Syria the right to arrest and interrogate Lebanese nationals or transfer them out of the country.

Most former detainees say they were imprisoned without trial (or given only a brief hearing devoid of virtually all internationally-accepted judicial standards) and subjected to lengthy interrogations, torture, and inhumane living conditions for periods of up to fifteen years or more.

While the circumstances and targets of abduction vary and often depend upon the discretion of Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the commander of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, the regime in Damascus derives clear monetary and political benefits from the detention of Lebanese citizens.

Exploitation of the detainees has been a lucrative business for Syrian military and intelligence personnel stationed in Lebanon. Relatives of detainees have often been subject to extortion by Syrian officers, who typically promise to release their loved ones or permit visits to them, in return for large sums of money or consumer goods. Sometimes these promises are kept, but more often than not families spend much of their savings only to be disappointed by lack of results. "The amount of money we have already paid exceeds tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention other valuable gifts, clothes, food, cases of whisky, cigarettes and the like," said Sonia Eid, the mother of a Lebanese soldier taken prisoner by the Syrians in 1990.

Since extortion of detainees' families is one of the many illicit activities that have enriched Syrian officials in Lebanon, it is by no means clear that Assad has the power to put a stop to it even if he wanted to--Kanaan and his cronies operate very much on their own, frequently contravening the expressed wishes of the young dictator, to whom they do not consider themselves accountable.

The political benefits derived by Damascus from the so-called "detainees file" are difficult to quantify, but clearly integral to Syria's success in subduing the Lebanese population. Not only is the threat of arbitrary detention under horrific conditions itself a deterrent to overt opposition to Syrian hegemony, but the fact that 17,000 people who disappeared during the 1975-1990 civil war remain unaccounted for (together with a dose of wishful thinking) has led many Lebanese to hope that their loved ones may be among the detainees held by Syria. Realizing that those who entertain such notions will be unlikely to antagonize occupying Syrian forces, Damascus facilitated these hopes by adamantly refusing to disclose the names of Lebanese held in its prisons.

For years, most relatives of Lebanese held in Syrian prisons suffered in silence, as they are often warned not to contact human rights groups or raise their concerns publicly if they want to see their loved ones again. In 1997, however, a group of parents broke their public silence on the issue by forming the Committee of Parents of Lebanese Detainees, headed by Sonia Eid. The committee succeeded in lifting the veil of silence that has long stymied open discussion of the detainees, putting pressure on Lebanese authorities to address the issue. Other Lebanese human rights groups, such as MIRSAD and SOLIDE, have also been active in the campaign. International human rights groups have worked in conjunction with local activists to bring unprecedented international attention to the plight of Lebanese detainees in Syria.

Members of the Parent's Committee and other Lebanese human rights groups dealing with the issue of Lebanese detainees in Syria have frequently been forcibly prevented from demonstrating outside the government buildings and journalists attempting to cover the demonstrations have been harassed and intimidated by security forces.

Last year, the Lebanese regime attempted to kill the issue by appointing a committee to investigate the fate of 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the civil war. In July 1999, the committee released its findings: all of those who remain missing should be considered legally dead. The government's decision outraged relatives of the detainees, many of whom had visited imprisoned family members and therefore had first-hand proof that they were not dead.

In early October, a high-ranking "official source" in Damascus acknowledged for the first time that Syria was holding Lebanese detainees, but insisted that they numbered "fewer than fifty" and were "accused of spying for Israel."1 However, Amnesty International stated that at least 228 Lebanese detainees were being held in Syrian prisons, most of them members of Lebanese nationalist and Islamist movements opposed to the Syrian occupation, while local human rights groups estimated the number to be even larger.

Since most parents and relatives of the detainees have succumbed to intimidation by Lebanese and Syrian intelligence and remained silent about the issue, the vast majority of detainees in Syrian prisons have not been identified by human rights groups. When Syria released 121 detainees in March 1998, only four of their names had appeared on Amnesty International's list of Lebanese detainees held by the Syrians. One can plausibly impute from this statistic that, for every detainee identified by Amnesty International, there are 30 unidentified detainees--suggesting that the total number of Lebanese held hostage in Damascus may be in the range of 5,000-6,000.

Bashar Assad and the "Detainee File"

On December 6, the Lebanese presidential palace at Baabda released a statement announcing that Assad called President Emile Lahoud and informed him that Damascus would "comply with the president's wish by issuing a decision to hand in to the Lebanese state all Lebanese arrested in Syria, whether they have been sentenced or are still under investigation." Sources at Baabda said that the impending release was the result of five months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by Lahoud, who "feels that working on such an issue out of the spotlight is more fruitful with the Syrians, as it allows them to feel that they are not being pressured."2

By portraying the release as the product of Lahoud's diplomacy, the Syrians hoped to elevate his political stature and undercut the opposition by communicating to the Lebanese population that only their government can "deliver" results from Damascus. As one Syrian official later told Al-Sharq al-Awsat, "it has become very clear for all Lebanese that if they want anything from Syria, it will be through the President of the Republic."3

In an apparently deliberate display of contempt for the detainees, the Lebanese cabinet appointed a follow-up committee to oversee the release that consisted entirely of Lebanese officials who have directly collaborated with Syrian intelligence in perpetrating past abductions: Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum, Military Intelligence Chief Raymond al-Azar, Internal Security Forces (ISF) Director Abdel-Karim Ibrahim, and the head of the General Security Directorate, Jamil al-Sayyid.

However, while the announcement of the release initially appeared to be a dramatic reversal of Syria's detention policy, it soon emerged that only 46 Lebanese detainees (along with 7 Palestinians and an Egyptian abducted by the Syrians on Lebanese soil) would be released--a small fraction of the total number of detainees believed to be held in Syrian prisons. Thus far, Lebanese authorities have released only 31 of the 46 detainees transferred by the Syrians (most of the others have been referred to military or civilian courts). General-Prosecutor Addoum later released a list of 95 additional detainees supposedly arrested inside Syria for ordinary criminal offenses, while steadfastly maintaining that all Lebanese who were apprehended inside Lebanon and taken to Syria are now free.

The message to thousands of Lebanese who have friends and relatives still held in Syria was unmistakably clear: your loved ones have now been declared officially dead by your own government and will only see the light of day if efforts to secure their release are conducted quietly, without negative publicity that might be harmful to Syrian-Lebanese ties. Conspicuously, not one of the 150 soldiers taken prisoner when the Syrian's ousted Aoun 1990 were released--sources close to the former premier interpreted the move as a warning to tone down their opposition to Syrian hegemony.

Only a handful of Christians were included in the release last month, and none of the most well-known Christian detainees were set free. For example, two Antonin priests abducted by the Syrians during their October 1990 invasion were excluded from the release. In response to complaints about their absence from a release that supposedly included "all detainees," the pro-Syrian Al-Safir daily newspaper announced that their bodies were "discovered" and buried outside the Lebanese Defense Ministry after a private "memorial service" (so private, in fact, that no members of the Antonin congregation were asked to attend).

Also missing from the list of freed prisoners was Boutros Khawand, a former member of the political bureau of the Kata'ib, a mainstream Maronite political party. Lebanese and Syrian authorities have said that they have no information on his whereabouts.

Nevertheless, mainstream Christian religious and political elites obediently praised Assad's initiative. A statement released by the Council of Maronite Bishops called the release "a positive beginning for rectifying relations between the two countries on a sound basis." The next day, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butrous Sfeir publicly questioned the accuracy of human rights groups, who have estimated the number of detainees to be in the hundreds or thousands. Former President Amin Gemayel, who returned from exile last July, praised the release as a step toward "mutual trust" between Lebanon and Syria, while his son, Metn MP Pierre Gemayel, welcomed the "courageous" decision by Assad.

Privately, a source close to the Maronite church explained that only positive reinforcement of initiatives undertaken by Assad can facilitate further "reforms" by the Syrian president. Recent releases have consisted almost entirely of Muslim detainees, the reasoning goes, because Muslim politicians have expressed their concerns about the fate of detainees in private, rather than "embarrassing" the Syrians by raising the issue publicly. In the absence of concerted international pressure on Damascus, publicizing the issue inside Lebanon will lead nowhere, the source said..

However, human rights activists loudly condemned attempts by Syrian and Lebanese officials to "close" the detainee file. According to Ghazi Aad, the spokesman for SOLIDE, several of detainees who remain imprisoned in Syria have been visited by their parents as recently as August. "No one can convince the parents of Najib Yusuf Jarmani, Tony Geryes Tamir, George Ayub Shalawit and Milad Barakat that their sons, whom they saw in Syrian prisons, were figments of their imagination," he told reporters at a news conference at the Alexandre Hotel in Ashrafieh. "They visited their sons several times . . . no one, no matter how high-ranking they are, can say this file has been closed." Aad added: "We all remember the case of Shaykh Hisham Minqara from the Tawhid Movement in Tripoli, and Samir Hasan, both of whom returned to their homes in August 2000, one month after an official committee had declared them dead," he said. Aad also noted that the list of 95 prisoners still held in Syrian prisons included at least one person known to have been abducted by Syrian intelligence inside Lebanon. "We know of at least one case, that of Joseph Khuways an epileptic since the age of seven who had, during one of his fits, accidentally rammed into a Syrian jeep, causing the death of two Syrian military personnel in the Bolonia-Dhour Choueir area, on June 1, 1991."

On December 13, the Lebanese cabinet issued a statement condemning those who seek "political gains" by "giving people the impression that everyone who went missing [during the civil war] is in Syria." Closing the "detainee file" will prove difficult, however, even if many political elites in the opposition have agreed to end public calls for their release. The resurgence of Lebanese civil society over the past year will not allow the issue to slip out of the public spotlight.


  1 Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 1 October 2000.
  2 The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 December 2000.
  3 Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 23 December 2000.

Related Articles

"Death of Lebanese Detainee in Syria Sparks International Outcry," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, November 1999.
"Hashem Minqara: Free at Last," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, September 2000.

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