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Syrian Opposition Members Disappearing in Lebanon

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Aug 11 2011 (IPS) - A wave of mysterious disappearances is befalling members of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon, where Syria’s military and intelligence apparatus had a strong presence during its occupation of the country from 1976 until 2005.

On May 24 at 4:30 in the afternoon, 86-year-old Shibli al-Ayssami, a Syrian former politician and opposition member, left his daughter’s house on the outskirts of the Lebanese mountain city of Aley. He was going for a walk, as he had done every day since he had arrived in Lebanon from his home in Washington five days earlier. Two hours later, the elderly man had vanished without a trace.

“We have not heard from him since,” Ayssami’s daughter, Rajaa Charafedine, told IPS

After several months with no leads, some new information surfaced last week. According to a source that is close to the investigation, three dark-coloured four-wheel drive vehicles with tinted windows were seen circling the area before Ayssami’s disappearance. At one point, the cars blocked the road leading to Charafedine’s house, and two men pushed Ayssami into one of the cars. The three vehicles were then spotted a few hours later crossing the border into Syria, en route to Damascus, added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the case is still under investigation.

Ayssami was one of the founders of the Syrian Baath Party. He was the minister of education, culture and agriculture in the 1960s and was vice-president of Syria in 1966, before the government was toppled by Hafez al-Assad, the father of current president, Bashar al-Assad. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death but was able to escape to Lebanon. Two years later he co-founded the Baath Party in Iraq. He retired from political life in 1992.

Walid Saffour, president of the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, said his organisation has information that Ayssami was kidnapped by a patrol led by a Lebanese security forces officer who is “known for his loyalty to a major Lebanese political party that is allied with the Syrian authorities.”

“Our information points to Ayssami being detained in one of the branches of the military intelligence in Damascus,” said Saffour.

Ayssami’s kidnapping is not the first of its kind to take place in Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian pro-democracy uprising and the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on it.

In February, when anti-regime activity was just beginning in Syria, Lebanese military intelligence agents arrested six Syrians belonging to the Jasem family while they were distributing flyers calling for democratic change in Syria. Three of them disappeared in the early hours of the morning after their release on Feb. 25, according to Nadim Houry, head researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Beirut office.

“Three civilian cars were seen waiting by the police station the night of the Jasems’ disappearance. One of the drivers was identified as a member of the Lebanese security services who was at the time in charge of security at the Syrian Embassy,” a high-ranking officer from the Lebanese security services, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS. The Lebanese security officer who allegedly led the kidnapping was identified as Salah al-Hajj by pan-Arab daily ‘al-Hayat’.

“We could not arrest him due to the current fiery political situation, but he was stripped of any official responsibilities,” the Lebanese security services officer said. In March, the Syrian embassy issued a statement denying that anybody associated with it had played any role in the disappearance of the Jasem brothers.

The Jasem case bears many similarities to a host of disappearances that occurred in Lebanon during the heyday of Syria’s occupation of the country in the 1990s, and even after its military withdrew in 2005.

In one instance, Nawar Aboud – an accountant at the United National Alliance (UNA), a political group affiliated with Syrian opposition figure Refaat al-Asad – was arrested on Dec. 24, 2008 by members of the Lebanese Military Intelligence in Tripoli, Lebanon’ s northern capital. Aboud was taken to a local military base for interrogation along with two other UNA employees. Like the Jasem brothers, he disappeared after his release the next day.

“Lebanon has a painful history of people being detained and illegally transferred to Syria. This issue is too sensitive to be dealt with lightly,” said Houry. If members of the security services are involved in the kidnapping of members of the Syrian opposition, they should be prosecuted. Lebanon’s judiciary should open an independent and transparent inquiry to shed light on these disappearances and establish responsibility for them… Only a credible and transparent investigation will put to rest fears that Lebanon’s security services may have acted outside the law and cooperated with Syrian security services in the kidnapping of Syrian opposition members.”

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