Boutros Khawand Vanished in Syria
 Written by Ana-Maria Luca
The Media Line/ Published Tuesday, December 16, 2008

 [Beirut] Rana Khawand does not remember her father. She was four years old when he disappeared. Boutros Khawand, a well-known Lebanese Christian politician, is said to have been kidnapped in December 1992 in East Beirut, in an area controlled by the Syrian Army.

 “Witnesses saw his car intercepted by a squad of 11 gunmen who forced him into a red van and drove away,” his daughter says. “We haven’t seen him since. They say Boutros Khawand is not in Syria. But we know. Other prisoners have said they saw him in prison there,” the girl whispers.
 Khawand is one of the many Lebanese who vanished into Syria during the 1980s and early 1990s.

 “We are speaking of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners in Syria. We had a list containing the names of 250–270 Lebanese prisoners before the Syrian withdrawal. From April 2005 until now, the number has risen to 600,” journalist and human rights activist Pierre Atallah says.

 According to the Damascus government, there are no Lebanese political prisoners in Syrian prisons. The issue has been haunting the nascent diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut.

 “It’s been going on for a while. We say ‘give us our prisoners’ – they say they don’t have any. Then after a while, people show up at home and say they had been detained in Syria,” Atallah says.

 Ali Abu Dehn is one of the people who came back from the Syrian prisons. He was released in 2000 after former Syrian President Hafez al Assad died and his son and successor, Bashar, pardoned 54 Lebanese political prisoners in honor of his father.

 Dehn’s nightmare began on December 7, 1987, when the Syrian Intelligence took him from the Australian embassy in Damascus. He was trying to leave Lebanon for Sydney to escape the civil war.
 “Instead I was sent to hell for 13 years,” he says, with a bitter smile.

 He was imprisoned in Saydnaya and Tadmur (Palmyra), together with dozens of Lebanese detainees. Dehn was charged at first with fighting against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, as well as with spying for Israel, a charge common to most of the detained Lebanese.
 He says they were tortured, beaten and humiliated.

 “What they did to us was inhuman. I was hanged by my wrist until the joint separated. The person interrogating me told me he would show my elbow to me. I didn’t believe he could. But he twisted my hand, so I saw my elbow,” he remembers.
 He also remembers how he got the dozens of scars on his body – the ones on his legs from the beatings – the broken hand, the cigarette burn on the back of his neck, the dislocated shoulder.

 He says he is not afraid to speak out, although he has been threatened with death several times.
 “I’m trying my best for the other prisoners who are still being tortured. There were many Lebanese with me. Bashar al Assad denies the existence of Lebanese in their prisons… but I left six of my friends in there. I know! We were sharing the little food, the small potato we had to split between five persons. They are still there! I don’t know if they are alive or dead – but I left them in Syria!”

 The situation of Lebanese detainees was an official taboo in Lebanese-Syrian relations for decades. Damascus had a military presence and control over Lebanon from 1976 until April 2005, when it withdrew its troops after the Cedar Revolution, the Lebanese reaction to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005.

 Several human rights organizations and the families of the detainees missing in Syria started to pressure the government in Beirut to take action and ask for information on the missing Lebanese in Syrian jails. But there has been little progress.
 “The problem is important for both political alliances in Lebanon, March 14 and March 8. They cannot deny it and can’t run away from responsibility in this case,” Atallah stresses.

At the request of hundreds of families, the Lebanese Ministry of Justice has recently started to update the files of the alleged political prisoners. But Atallah, who is a member of the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights, says he is not very optimistic.
 “The Lebanese government is not well organized, it’s not serious,” he says.

 One by one, the Lebanese politicians who visited Syria after the establishment of diplomatic relations threw the ball into somebody else’s court.
 The minister of justice, Ibrahim Najjar, has acknowledged the existence of 745 Lebanese citizens missing in Syria. In a television interview, he said these citizens were divided into two main categories – convicts and kidnap victims – and that the Justice Ministry should take responsibility for the convicts.
 However, Najjar did not say how the Lebanese government would deal with the situation of the kidnap victims.

 At the end of September 2008, the justice minister announced he had received an updated list of 120 Lebanese prisoners from Damascus. But no political prisoner was on it, Atallah says.

 “They are criminals imprisoned for drug trafficking or smuggling weapons or working in prostitution. There was no information about the soldiers detained during the 1990 Syrian attack on the Christian areas.”

 After his visit to Damascus in November, Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said his talks with Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majid did not cover the dossier of missing persons and detainees in Syrian prisons.
 “The issue of missing Lebanese in Syrian jails was not excluded from discussions with the Syrians, but I did not want to exceed my authority, so we only discussed the role of the interior minister in this matter,” Baroud said in a statement on his return to Beirut.

 When Lebanese President Michel Suleiman asked his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al Assad, about the fate of the political prisoners, the leader in Damascus is said to have replied that it was not a presidential matter.

 “They diverted this case to the joint committee, the Syrian-Lebanese Committee. It’s not promising. The work of this committee is based on a routine.
 “At every meeting the Lebanese present a list of people who are allegedly detained in Syria, and the Syrians ask for information about their people lost in Lebanon in the civil war. In fact, this is not the same thing,” Atallah says. “They were in Lebanon for 30 years. Why didn’t they look for their people then? Now they remember?”
 Gen. Michel Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement leader, also visited Syria recently. The human rights organizations, as well as the families of the people who vanished in Syria, asked him to bring up the issue in front of the Syrian president. Aoun refused to deal with the case because he said it was the responsibility of the president of the republic.

 The families of the people who vanished in Syria still hope they might hear from their relatives.
 “We hope that now, with the diplomatic relations with Syria, maybe we might know what happened to my father,” Rana Khawand sighs. “The last time they heard of him was in 2004. A Lebanese prisoner was released and he said that he saw my father in prison.”
 Her father would now be 79. She hopes he is still alive, but she knows that the chances of seeing him lessen every day.

 “If Syria doesn’t admit it has Lebanese prisoners, nothing can be done. I can’t see a good relationship with Syria if there are still Lebanese prisoners there,” she says.
 Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has confirmed that an embassy will be established in Lebanon by year's end.

 Atallah says he can hardly wait for a Syrian embassy to open in Beirut.  “The day they open it, the families of the prisoners will set up tents in front of it,” he promises.

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