Where is Shibli al-Ayssami?

A long, narrow road winds up from the central square in the city of Aley to the hilltop quarter of Ras al-Jabal. Leaning on a cane, with a small plastic bag in his hand, an elderly man walks in the shade of the poplar trees lining the street. Suddenly, three four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted windows appear from nowhere and stop behind the man, cutting off the street. Two men jump out, grab the elderly man under the arm and pull him into one of the vehicles.
The elderly man is Shibli al-Ayssami, a Syrian political figure and one of the founders of the Syrian Baath Party. The kidnapping occurred on May 24, two months after the breakout of widespread anti-regime protests in Syria and the government’s violent crackdown. And while the case initially caused an outcry among Lebanese supporters of the Syrian uprising, until recently little came out about the investigation and any leads the police may have.

Born in the Druze region of Sweidah, the former Baathist held several official positions in the Syrian government in the 1950s and 60s, including as minister of Education, Agriculture and Culture as well as vice president.

But Ayssami was imprisoned and sentenced to death in 1966, in the wake of the political coup of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. Ayssami managed to escape to Lebanon, though, and two years later moved his family to Iraq, where he co-founded Iraqi Baath Party. Ayssami retired from politics in 1992 and moved in 2003 to Egypt, before leaving for the US in 2008. He was in Lebanon to see his family when he was kidnapped.

“My father is an honest and caring man,” Ayssami’s daughter, Rajaa Charafedine, told NOW Lebanon. “He did not make a dime during his political life and was supported financially by his children. He was the type of person who would walk around an ant to avoid stepping on it. I can’t understand how something like this could happen to him.”

Residents of the area told NOW Lebanon that they had not been contacted by the police about the abduction. “One officer came the first day after Ayssami’s kidnapping inquiring if we had seen anything unusual, but that was it,” said one resident who asked that his name not be printed for fear of retribution.

A high-ranking Internal Security Forces officer who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to talk about the case, admitted that the investigation might not have been conducted properly for political reasons, as many Lebanese security officers are close to the Syrian regime. But, he noted, the ISF’s intelligence branch conducted their own inquiry into the disappearance and gathered valuable information. “We are 90 percent sure that Ayssami was taken by members of a major political party now in government, known for its Syrian ties,” said the officer.

This information was backed up by a report released earlier this month by the Syrian Committee for Human Rights (SCHR), which accused a member of the Lebanese security apparatus of kidnapping Ayssami.

“The officer is known to be close to a local party that is currently aligned to Syria. We have information about the license plate of the car that transferred Ayssami to Syria,” said Walid Saffour, president of the SCHR, in a phone conversation with NOW Lebanon. “Ayssami is currently being held prisoner in a military intelligence building in Damascus.”

The case resembles that of the Jassem brothers, three Syrians who were arrested by the Lebanese security services in early February for distributing flyers calling for democratic change in Syria. They vanished after their release. A Lebanese security services officer who was in charge of security at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut was rumored to be behind the kidnapping. While the Syrian Embassy denied that anyone who worked for it was involved in the case, the officer was stripped of his responsibilities.

Such disappearances highlight the state’s failure to protect people in the country as well as the lack of judicial oversight in investigating possible cases of police corruption and collusion with the Syrian regime. “A culture of impunity prevails currently in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, head researcher at Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “Because the people who have disappeared are Syrians, no one seems to care.”

“Lebanon under the current regime is not a country that is safe for Syrian dissidents,” the SCHR report noted.

  • No way

    The first right we need to ask for in Lebanon is SECURITY!!! With all what is happening and what we are reading and hearing about I won't write my name or my e mail even if this comment won't appear. Sorry, but what is the meaning of The Lebanese Republic? Does that meen an independent country?

    August 17, 2011