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Ana Maria Luca

Syria’s secret prisoners

The possible freeing of Lebanese detainees from Tadmur might pave way for holding the Syrian government accountable

Lebanese prisoners wave to their relatives from a bus as they are taken to Syrian intelligence service headquarters at Anjar, after being released from Syrian jails 5 March 1998. Around 100 Lebanese prisoners held in Syria since the 1975-1990 wars were freed and returned to Lebanon but were prevented from having immediate contact with their families. (AFP/Joseph Barack)

Lebanese nationals detained by Syrian forces during the occupation of Lebanon from 1976 until 2005 were reportedly freed when Islamic State (ISIS) fighters took over the city of Palmyra and released the prisoners of the infamous Tadmur Prison located in the historic heritage city.


The Lebanese channel MTV broke the news on Thursday morning, a few hours after the city fell to ISIS, announcing that 27 Lebanese detainees, including five Christians, some of whom had been imprisoned for over 35 year, were free.


Neither the Lebanese Ministry of Interior nor any organization that represents the rights of the families of the detainees and the disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War could verify the information.


Over 600 Lebanese men were allegedly detained or disappeared by the Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon. Many were imprisoned in Tadmur and other detention facilities around the country. Many are political prisoners, members of the Lebanese Christian anti-Syrian militias, officers of the Lebanese Security Forces and even Lebanese soldiers.


Several detainees have been released over the years. One of the latest cases was Yaacoub Chamoun, who returned to Lebanon in 2012, after 17 years of detention. He had been taken for his membership in the anti-Syrian Christian Phalanges and had been sentenced to life in a labor camp for collaborating with Israel.


The possible release of Lebanese prisoners from Tadmur could finally bring solid proof that Syria is holding Lebanese citizens and this would make it possible for international courts to hold the government in Damascus accountable. “If this is true, it means that it is proof that there are Lebanese detained in Syria and it opens the door to justice,” Ghazi Aad, the head of Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), told NOW.

 


The Lebanese prisoners

 

The Syrian state has never officially admitted to having Lebanese political prisoners, but every so often, prisoners are released and return home to Lebanon in secret. Many come home in coffins. The process is secretive, often under threat of death, and few have dared to speak up.

 

Ali Abu Dehn isae former Lebanese detainees in Syria. He was detained in Tadmur in 1989. “There were more than 100 Lebanese,” he said, but he only remembers the other prisoners in his cell: Shamel Kanaan, a Lebanese Army sergeant arrested in 1986; Ali Eddin Hassan, arrested in 1987; Said Ali al-Hajj, arrested in 1989; and Jamal Yassin, jailed in 1987. He also said that the only way to discover the truth is for the Lebanese Minsitry of Foreign Affairs to contact “Turkey or Qatar and every side that has links with ISIS or the Nusra Front to help the Lebanese government to get its released citizens.”

 

However, it’s not clear if the Lebanese nationals would still be held in the facility in 2015. The prison was closed for 10 years, from 2001 to 2011. It was reopened to reportedly host 350 prisoners suspected of organizing anti-regime demonstrations at the beginning of the anti-Assad uprising.

 


Avoiding the question

 

In March 1998, the Syrian government released 100 Lebanese prisoners from detention facilities across the country, prompting international organizations to condemn the government in Damascus for arbitrary detention of foreign citizens.

 

The detainee issue has been pushed back and forth by Lebanese and Syrian governments since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. In 2008, when Syrian and Lebanon restarted the diplomatic relations, the Lebanese Ministry of Justice received a list of Lebanese prisoners detained in Syria. However, they were only common criminals imprisoned for trafficking, drug abuse and even prostitution. The same year, newly-elected President Michel Suleiman reportedly asked Bashar Assad himself about Lebanese political prisoners but was told it “was not a presidential matter.”

 

The case was referred for years to the Syrian Lebanese Higher Council and that was a dead end: the Lebanese delegation would present a list of people they believed were detained in Syria; the Syrian delegation would reply by inquiring about their own people lost in the civil war. Nothing has changed since then, despite families of the missing holding periodic sit-ins in Beirut.

 


Most prisoners transferred before the offensive

 

It is hard to verify rumors coming from Palmyra, Syrian activists said. “I’ve heard of the news and I know there were Lebanese held there, but I can’t tell what happened there today,” one Syrian activist told NOW on condition of anonymity. “ISIS liberated over 1,000 prisoners from Tadmur. Most are defected soldiers from the Syrian Army,” another Syrian activist told NOW. “But most of the prisoners had been transferred to other prisons by the regime forces before the ISIS offensive began,” he said.

 

Aad told NOW: “Unfortunately, the rumors are not true. It is irresponsible for the media to act like this. It’s like murder to give hope in vain to the families. It’s very sensitive, it’s complicated, it’s horrible,” he said. He did not say how he could verify that the information was false. “I am sure of one thing right now: that they evacuated the prison before the invasion.”

 

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609. 

 

Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

Lebanese prisoners wave to their relatives from a bus as they are taken to Syrian intelligence service headquarters at Anjar, after being released from Syrian jails 5 March 1998. Around 100 Lebanese prisoners held in Syria since the 1975-1990 wars were freed and returned to Lebanon but were prevented from having immediate contact with their families. (AFP/Joseph Barack)

If this is true, it means that it is proof that there are Lebanese detained in Syria and it opens the door to justice.”